According to figures noted by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), about 44% of American households own an estimated 85.9 million cats and 78 million dogs. When you brought your pet home for the first time, chances are that you were prepared to provide food, fresh water and a safe place for shelter. Veterinary care on a regular basis is also a given to ensure that your cat or dog stays healthy and lives a long and happy life. One thing you probably did not plan to have to contend with is a flea infestation.

Even if you have never had fleas before acquiring a pet, or if your pet was free of fleas before you adopted him or her, chances are that you will need to address house fleas at some point during your tenure as a pet parent.

Why Are Fleas So Prevalent?

Fleas use the blood of animals, including birds, humans, reptiles and domestic and wild animals, in order to feed themselves. Bloodmeals see them through their four distinct life stages as an egg, larva, pupa and, finally, a biting adult. According to PetMD, a single female flea can consume 15 times her body weight in blood every day and can lay 2,000 eggs over the course of her lifetime. In addition, a flea can last for more than 100 days without consuming a meal of blood.

Of the more than 2,000 flea species and subspecies of fleas that are currently known, a single species of flea – the cat flea – makes up the bulk of cat and dog flea infestations found in the United States. Pets with fleas can encounter a number of health problems including tapeworms, anemia, and extreme cases of itching which are known as pruritus. Some dogs and cats develop an allergy to the saliva of fleas, which can lead to intense irritation and severe itchiness. Extreme cases can lead to open sores, infection and more conditions requiring veterinary care.

How to Identify Different Fleas

The cat flea and dog flea are found throughout most of the United States, though there is some evidence that their prevalence is less pronounced in the Rocky Mountain states. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) paper, Fleas of Public Health Importance and Their Control, the The head of the dog flea is about two times longer than it is high, with one front tooth shorter than the other. The cat flea’s head is equally long and high, but more angular in nature. Its front teeth are about equal in length.

While cat fleas are considered to be the most prevalent within the industrial U.S., other fleas exist which either feed on humans or their pets and that can pass on diseases. The human flea is not currently seen as often in North America. While it is not considered to be an effective host for disease, it can serve as an intermediate vector for some illnesses.

How to Find House Fleas

Regardless of which type of flea affecting your pet, they must all be removed in order to avoid a reinfestation. They can be found in areas where dust and other organic matter accumulate including clutter, under your house, in your home, and throughout your yard.

If you have a flea infestation in your home, then nearly 60% of the insects will be in the larval stage. They will then spin a cocoon that provides them with the ideal environment in which to develop into a pupa. After one or two weeks as a pupa, the flea grows into an adult. The adult flea does not always immediately start feeding on a host. Instead, it can stay inside the cocoon for as long as five months until something – carbon dioxide from a vibration or an passing animal passing nearby or a vibration, for example – causes the flea to awaken and begin the search for food.

Inspect Your Pets For House Fleas

The best way to find out if your cat or dog has fleas is to use a flea comb to carefully work your way through your pet’s hair. This should be followed by a flea bath and/or dip.

Treatment and Control of a Flea Infestation

After the flea bath or dip, comb through your pet’s fur once more to ensure that all eggs, pupa and larvae are removed as well as any stray adult fleas that might have made it past the treatment. To help prevent future infestations, talk to your veterinarian about the flea treatment that is most appropriate for your situation and your particular pet.

Ways to Eliminate the Flea Population

Once your dog or cat is treated, tackle the rest of your home. Make sure that you wash your pet’s bedding on a regular basis. Sweep, mop and vacuum the floors thoroughly and frequently.

Vacuuming can eliminate up to 60% of flea eggs and 30% of flea larvae from an environment. Vacuum under your cushions, beds, chairs and furniture, as well as along your walls, to remove fleas that are in tiny cracks and crevices. Be sure to discard the vacuum cleaner bag in a tied plastic bag outside of your home when you are finished.

Cat and dog fleas are also found outside in the shady, moist and cool places they prefer. While open grass and sunny areas are not conducive to their survival, they thrive in trees and shrubs. Make sure that you regularly trim back your landscaping. Rake up and dispose of leaves in order remove the places where fleas thrive more readily.

How to Get Rid of Fleas: Insecticides Vs Natural Methods

Some insecticides are designed to be used on pets. Others, such as sprays and foggers, can be used in your home to start eliminating the flea population. It is important to know that fleas can become immune to a particular insecticide over a period of time. For this reason, you may need to change to different products on a regular basis to keep the flea population under control.

Natural ways to get rid of fleas can involve traps, powders that can be sprinkled around your yard, and predator nematodes that can be mixed with water and used to treat the soil.

Important Note on the Risk of Disease from Flea Bites

A flea infestation can not only make you and your pets miserable because of all the biting and scratching, they can serve as a vector for a host of serious diseases including tapeworms and cat scratch fever. Murine typhus can be passed on to you and your family by your cat if he or she is bitten by an infected flea. If that flea bites you, their bacteria-laden feces could make you ill. Some of the signs of Murine typhus include nausea, fever, body aches and headache.

Plague can be passed along to you and your family by a flea bite. In fact, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, fleas are the most common method of transmitting the plague to humans. Though most often associated with fleas that have used rodents as a host, your pet dog or cat can also bring plague-infected fleas into your home. If you or a member of your family is bitten by a flea, you could be exposed to septicemic plague or bubonic plague – both of which are extremely serious diseases.

When to Call a Professional

With the growing focus on do-it-yourself projects, it is no surprise that many pet owners attempt to tackle a flea infestation on their own. But it is important to understand up front that this could be a constant battle that takes weeks, or even months, to resolve. Successfully ridding your home of fleas for good often means seeking out experts. Investing in a professional exterminator today is often less expensive over the long run.