What we know about fleas: they are a nuisance, they can be hard to get rid of, they hurt our pets and sometimes, they even bite us. My goal in the discussion of fleas below is not to tell you all the bad things about fleas, although there will be some of that, but rather to present some interesting biology and the unique history of these tiny insects.
If you have a cat or dog, it is more than likely that you are dealing with the same type of flea. The most common flea that we encounter in our industry is the cat flea. This flea is found on cats and dogs and is typically the villain in our story. However, there are many other types of fleas, some of which have unique biology or behavior. Fleas can play host to various diseases; for example, the oriental rat flea is a vector of bubonic plague. Another flea that can often be found on rodents is the chigoe flea (Tunga penetrans), also known as the sand flea for its fondness of sand. This flea, although not actively present in the U.S., has historically made its mark. On Christopher Columbus’s second journey to the new world, he faced many challenges, one of them being this flea. These fleas have different behavior than other fleas. The female chigoe flea will burrow into the skin of her host and remain there to feast on blood until she’s the size of a pea. To breathe, the flea prevents the wound from healing over, leaving an open wound. She will lay hundreds of eggs over the next week or two and in turn create an unsightly wound on the host. After about a month, the female will die and fall out of the wound, but not before causing issues for its host (Stewart, 2011). This is an example of a flea that has a very different behavior than our everyday cat flea.
There are over 2,000 different species of fleas in the world. They have different feeding preferences and biologies, but let’s explore some interesting facts about the flea we see every day – the cat flea. When we take a closer look into the insect world, and in this case the flea, we see how neat these tiny creatures are. Adult cat fleas are built and adapted to move through a host’s hair or fur. They are also excellent jumpers so that they can move easily from host to host. The cat flea can jump 50x its body height; they are actually able to jump 600 times an hour for 3 days. This capacity for jumping is pretty amazing when you think about the number of times that you may be able to jump, and how high you can jump.
Fleas also have interesting reproductive parts and habits. Male fleas have special adaptations for reproduction, including grooves on their head that the female is able to hold on to as well as suction cups on their antennae that help them better hold on to the females. Measuring two-thirds of its body length, the male flea’s reproductive organ is the largest in the animal kingdom relative to its size. Fleas are not the only ones with these interesting features, though. When you take a closer look inside the insect world, you will find all sorts of neat facts. For instance, beetles are the most diverse species of insects, and cockroaches are some of the fastest runners in the animal world – even faster than cheetahs. I may be biased because I am an entomologist, but I think that insects are some of the most interesting animals out there.
However, as neat as fleas are, it is important to be cautious of them. They can, as mentioned, carry diseases or parasites, such as tapeworms. Make sure your pets are treated and call a professional if your home is inundated with them. The cat flea does not have a specific host that it latches to, so humans make just as good hosts for blood-feeding as other animals. So be sure to be vigilant and be on the lookout for these small nuisances around your home.
Stewart, A. 2011. Wicked Bugs. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill, North Carolina.