My life story is a fairly typical one for a guy from my family. I mean, a lot of people think I’m a villain, but a fellow has to live his life, right? Although there are over 2,000 identified species of fleas in the world, I’m just your average cat flea, common to many households. Even though I’m technically called a cat flea, I actually live in a home that has a dog as a pet. I know, it’s strange, but it’s my life.
From the Beginning
I started off as a little white egg, about the size of a pin head, which can look just like dead skin on the fur of a pet. I don’t really remember much about my mother, but I know she had to feed on the blood of either a human or pet in order to mate and begin the reproduction process. My siblings and I were laid as eggs on a warm, furry host, and there were about 25 of us at the time. Most of us slid right off of the dog and landed in the warm, soft carpeted area where Rover slept at night or during naps, which is fairly common. You may see little black specks on your carpet or dog bed, but those aren’t eggs. They are either just dried blood or flea droppings. (I’m gonna try not to be offended that you would get me confused with flea dung.) On darker haired dogs, our eggs might look like bits of dead skin or dandruff.
Several days after being born as eggs, my siblings and I hatched into larvae. At the time, none of us could see and many of us scooted into the crack between Rover’s bed and the wall or carpet. This was an enjoyable, homey spot for our soft, hairy, worm-like bodies because we weren’t super keen on being in the light. Our preferable form of sustenance at that time was dead things–organic matter including insects, skin cells, vegetable matter, feces remains, and the like. Sadly, some of my siblings couldn’t get enough food in this stage and never even made it to the pupal stage of life. But really, that just leaves more for me, right?
There are actually three stages I went through within the larva stage, after each of which I molted and grew into my new skin. A couple of weeks after hatching into larvae, I began weaving a silky cocoon which is a vital part of my pupal stage–I liken it to the teenage years in humans, if you will. My cocoon was a lovely creation of which I was very proud, and it served me well as my home for a couple more weeks. In order to keep it from being seen, I worked hard to attach pieces of dirt and random debris to my cocoon while I was making it. Some might not appreciate the beauty, but this protected me, and I never needed to feed during this stage of metamorphosis.
I really became a completely different me during this time of my life, developing everything I would need in order to emerge as an adult flea. It was pretty exciting knowing what was coming, but kind of boring to lie dormant for awhile. I did emerge from my cocoon earlier than some of my sisters who were laid as eggs at the same time of me, which is typical. Women are just slower, I guess. But really, the reason I came out when I did was that I sensed Rover’s presence through the carbon dioxide emitted from his breath, and I sensed the vibration from his body movements. I was anxious for my first meal of warm blood!
My Wicked Body
Enjoying the freedom from the cocoon, my new body has a pointy nose, great claws, and six legs which I use for jumping over a foot in the air and onto my host dog. Although many people think that fleas can “fly”, we are truly wingless creatures and rely on our mad jumping skills for transportation. We get our air velocity from our super strong legs.
My oval shaped body is hard and slick, covered with little hairs and spiny scales which aid me in moving around on my furry host with ease. To the naked eye, I may appear almost black, but my outer shell is typically a reddish or brownish color. My body is so durable that it would be very difficult, even for a strong human, to kill me by crushing or even stepping on me. The fact that my body is flat from side to side probably helps me survive. I’m super strong and use it to my advantage because when Rover starts his dreaded scratching with his hind legs, my family and I have to watch out! We can get flung all over the place with his wild and fast flailing.
Now that I’m an adult, all I eat is blood from mammals. Some of my cat flea friends will find themselves living in barns and infesting outdoor livestock, but I’m content to live in my family house with Rover. It definitely has to be warm blood, though. Rover is my preference typically, because I try to spend most of my time traveling around where he is. So he’s an easy target. Even if he flings me off with one of his violent scratches, I typically just jump right back on. But if one of the humans comes nearby and I’m hungry, I won’t hesitate to use my agile legs jump on to human ankles or calves to find a meal. It’s possible for me to eat as many as ten times per day if a viable host is available to me. But because I can survive for months without eating, I don’t get too desperate if I have to wait for awhile between meals. I’ll get my food eventually. I’m rather patient in waiting for my prey.
As an adult, I prefer to spend most of my time living in the midst of Rover’s fur. When I bite the family dog, those bites can begin to create severe itching and swelling, and can cause extreme hair loss and red patches if my family and friends have been at it for awhile. Instead of the actual bite that affects the host, it is really the protein chemical substance in my saliva that people and dogs are allergic to, which creates the itching. When I first bite, my saliva is pumped into the skin of my prey to keep the blood from clotting, enabling me to get a full meal. But that saliva can cause problems for my hosts who may have a sensitivity toward it.
On human skin, the bites look small, round, reddish, and often sit in pairs or lines because of the way I suck blood with my mouth parts. My bite marks are easier to see on humans than pets, and often are found around the ankles or calves because we live on or near the floor most of the time. Sometimes I’m sneaky and I’ll head up into beds or other furniture with Rover, giving me better access to human torsos. Yum!
Reproduction of Fleas
For a female flea, within 24 hours of her first meal of blood she can begin mating and laying eggs. Often up to 50 eggs per day, particularly at the beginning of her adult life. And she lays at least a few eggs every day. A female may lay between several hundred and two thousand eggs during her life span of a few months. That’s a seriously wicked infestation! Those eggs mature into adults in just a few weeks, multiplying our population exponentially within a very short time period. So even if humans think that they have killed all of us adult fleas, there are often more eggs or larvae hidden, which will eventually turn into adults, starting the whole process all over again. Poor humans! They would have more success if they took the time to really understand the life cycle of a flea. Luckily for me, most of them don’t.
The Dreaded Sucking Monster
Because we fleas like dark, moist conditions, and as larvae we feed on dead things, it’s difficult for us to thrive in brightly lit, clean places. That giant, noisy machine referred to as the vacuum cleaner is the monster my family fears the most. Whether we are in the egg stage, adult stage, or somewhere in between, we cannot survive if we are sucked up into that noisy, massive machine. Because of the sucking action, the humidity is removed from our bodies and the whirring wind causes us to die. We all live in deep fear of the dreaded sucking monster.
Barring a vacuum cleaner, when we fleas are in the pupal stage, we can live up to almost a year within our cocoons if we need to. This makes it super difficult for humans to eradicate us because we are so patient in waiting for the right moment to emerge as adults. Under the right conditions, with the right humidity and temperature, an adult flea in my family can live up to a year and a half, but an average life span is normally two or three months. By that time we often run out of food, or the temperature conditions are not ideal and we cannot hold out any longer.
My family also can’t survive in low temperatures, which is the reason we are often found indoors. We thrive in warmer climates outside, or during the summer months if we are going to live outdoors. We are often discovered by humans inside their houses in the fall when the air conditioning is no longer running but the heat has not been turned on yet, because these both minimize humidity. Lovely autumn weather provides a great opportunity for us to hang around in people’s homes and breed, with many larvae waking up due to better living conditions.
We also are not able to survive in water. It’s embarrassing, really. We simply have never mastered the art of swimming. Maybe it’s our probing noses or six legs. Whatever it is, when Rover gets a bath, my family is most likely in trouble. Especially if the bather uses a good shampoo formulated specially for dogs. A fine toothed comb dipped in warm, soapy water and run through Rover’s coat would be the death of most of us adult fleas. Of course, there are probably eggs still lying around Rover’s bed which can develop into adults, suck some blood, and propagate to begin the cycle all over again! That’s why, when humans try to eradicate my family, they must concentrate not only on the adults, but on the eggs, larvae, and pupae as well. We’re survivors, that’s for sure.
My family of cat fleas typically cannot be sustained only within the human population without a great deal of effort. We really need pets around the house or outside in order to live our lives properly. However, even though we do not prefer humans as our hosts, we are still certainly capable of spreading diseases. We’ve even been accused of spreading the dreaded plague from rats to people, which killed millions of people in Europe. But we are also well known for the tapeworms we can carry and pass on to human or pet hosts. This happens when the host accidentally swallows one of my family members who is not yet fully developed.
Humans seem to be obsessed with finding new and efficient methods for getting rid of fleas. Although I’m not a proponent of this kind of activity, I’ve heard that there are certain chemicals which can be used to kill off families such as mine. As well as treating the pet for fleas from all four stages, the household area and outside areas must also be treated to make sure that there are no hidden family members lurking about unseen. Washing and drying pet beds kills anyone who might be hiding there. Giving dogs and cats a bath with special chemicals. And the vacuum is the most dangerous foe for us. Any of these actions could likely lead to my demise. But until then, I’ll be hanging out with my pal, Rover.