Fleas: Common Misconceptions Revealed

Dr. Jacqueline Brister

scratching dog

Fleas are the most common ectoparasite (parasite that lives on the outside of the body) in dogs and cats. Much confusion exists about how long they can live, how to prevent them, and the significance of your pet having fleas.

Life Cycle of Fleas

The life cycle of a flea involves several stages of development and lasts much longer than most people realize. An adult flea can live on a pet for over three months. The female flea lays eggs within 1-2 days of biting and ingesting blood from a pet and will continue to lay eggs for her entire 3-4-month life. She can lay up to 50 eggs a day. In other words, an adult female flea can lay up to 6,000 eggs in her lifetime. Anywhere from 2-12 days later, the eggs will hatch into larvae (worm-like creatures) in the pet’s environment that then live off the adult fleas’ feces (also called flea dirt). Larvae molt several times, which takes as few as nine days and as many as 200 days. After their final molt, the flea larvae spin themselves into cocoons where they will finish developing into adult fleas. This usually takes about one week, but a flea can stay in a cocoon for up to one year.

It is important to understand this process because a female flea’s offspring will go on to produce the same number of eggs daily as the mother and live 3-4 months as well. When you see one flea on your pet, chances are very high that many more are present – or soon will be. The ability of larvae to stay in a cocoon for up to one year means that even without an animal to live on, up to a year can pass before the cocoon will hatch into a flea. Any pets new to that environment who are not protected by flea preventives are at risk for a flea infestation.

Does my pet have fleas?

Adult fleas are very small black insects that can jump and move quickly. This can make them very difficult to see. When looking for an adult flea, part the hair on your pet so that you can see the skin underneath. Good places to check are the hips, just above the tail, and in your pet’s armpits. Another way to check for fleas is to use a flea comb. This method will also show you if your pet has flea dirt (flea feces). Flea dirt is actually digested blood from the flea biting your pet. If you are not sure whether you are seeing normal dirt or flea dirt, put the combed out material on a wet, white paper towel. If the “dirt” turns red or rust colored, it is more likely to be digested blood (i.e., flea dirt).

Why You Should Worry

Fleas make your pet itchy and uncomfortable. They can also cause skin infections in your pet and pass on various diseases such as tapeworms (from your pet eating the fleas). Even humans can get diseases from fleas, such as Cat Scratch Fever or, believe it or not, the Bubonic Plague.

Prevention: Flea Control for Dogs & Cats

Preventing fleas is the best course of action. This can be done with a variety of topical flea medications, oral flea medications, or medicated flea collars. Year-round prevention is ideal because of the ability of a larva in cocoon to survive for a year in the environment. Your veterinarian is an excellent resource for flea preventative medication options. He or she can go over the pros and cons of each kind and help you decide what to use. And the best part is that all flea preventatives are eligible for reimbursement under Embrace’s Wellness Rewards plan.

If your pet already has fleas, you should not only treat your pet with a preventative, you should also consider treating your house and yard. Some insecticides/pesticides used for yard/house treatment are not safe for your pet to be around, so be sure to read the label of any treatments being used or ask your exterminator and veterinarian which products are safest. Some flea preventative products are not safe for all pet species (e.g., dog products should never be used on cats) or young children so be very careful when you choose a product for your pet.

While you can't predict when your pet is going to get sick or injured, you can protect yourself from expensive veterinary bills. Embrace Pet Insurance gives you the freedom to do what’s best for your pet without stressing over the cost. Easily personalize your coverage to fit your budget and your pet’s needs, then visit any vet for nose-to-tail coverage. Check out what the Embrace plan covers or compare pet insurance providers to learn more.