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Pests such as fleas can make life a misery. The process of dealing with them can be time-consuming and frustrating. You might hope that a flea problem will go away on its own, but is this just wishful thinking?
Fleas will not go away on their own while a suitable host is present. In the absence of a host, fleas can remain dormant in their pupae state for up to five months before eventually dying off. Therefore, treatment is usually required to resolve a flea infestation.
In this article, we’ll discuss the four unique life stages of fleas and some of the best ways to deal with an infestation. First a little more information on what happens if fleas are left to their own devices and what happens if you do not have any pets for them to feast on?
What Happens if Fleas Go Untreated?
If left untreated, fleas will rapidly multiply and can cause serious or even fatal health issues for their hosts. Aside from spreading disease and tapeworms, an untreated infestation of fleas can result in a drop in red blood cell count in smaller hosts, this is known as flea bite anemia.
Flea bite anemia can be easily treated if a veterinarian is seen in good time. However, you can see just how important it is to eliminate flea outbreaks quickly.
Do Fleas Go Away Without Pets?
As a general rule, fleas will eventually die off if pets are not present. The vast majority of flea species require hosts with dense fur, or feathers to complete their reproduction process. However, few people are comfortable waiting for an untreated flea infestation to die out.
Fleas may still bite humans that are nearby in the absence of other animals but on the plus side, they will be incapable of breeding and producing offspring. This will eventually break the life cycle.
So, while particularly fleas in their pupae state can remain present in your home for months on end, an infestation is unlikely to escalate without any suitable animal hosts around.
There is one species of flea, known as Pulex Irritans or the human flea that is an exception to this rule. For more information on fleas and their relationship with humans please check out my article What Attracts Fleas to Humans and How to Protect Yourself.
How Long Does It Take for Fleas to Go Away on Their Own?
It can take up to 155 days for fleas to go away on their own. This is due to the pupae’s ability to rest dormant until a host is detected. Meanwhile, adult fleas removed from their host can only survive up to 4 days, and newly emerged adult fleas, up to a week with no host.
After this period without a host, adult fleas will die from starvation. It should also be noted that this 155 days figure for pupae is dependent on the ambient temperature that they find themselves in.
This information is based on studies of cat fleas. However, cat and dog fleas are very similar and both can infest either species.
The Flea Life Cycle
To properly deal with a flea infestation, understanding the life cycle of fleas and their habits is extremely useful. It will help you to make more informed decisions about the combination of treatments you use.
We will also dive into some strategies for getting rid of an infestation later in the article.
Fleas go through four complete stages of development. Each one is unique in its actions and behavior. The duration of a flea’s lifecycle depends on the environment that it is in.
Most fleas survive longest in places where there are high levels of humidity and where the temperature is warmer as well.
Fleas do not live long in areas where the humidity is below 50% or where it is extremely cold. Based on these factors, an adult flea can live either a few weeks or a few months.
Fleas typically feed on one blood host. If that blood host dies or is removed, the fleas will seek out a new blood host.
At what stage does the flea life cycle begin? This brings us to the flea and egg scenario. A female flea will feed on the blood of its host and then lay her eggs on it.
Once the female flea has laid her eggs, the life cycle begins. Unlike other insect eggs, which tend to be more sticky, flea eggs are dry.
This means that flea eggs generally fall off of the host’s body shortly after being laid as the host moves around. This spreads them out over a wider area.
These eggs are small and white and can only be properly seen with the help of magnification.
The time that it takes for the eggs to hatch into larvae depends partly on the temperature. If the eggs have been laid in an environment that is cooler and has low humidity, it will take longer for them to hatch.
On the other hand, if eggs have been laid in an environment that is warm and humid, the larvae will hatch much more quickly.
The typical hatching time for flea eggs can be anywhere from 1-12 days after being laid. This depends upon the surrounding environment as well as the development of the larvae.
Habits: Flea eggs typically hatch on the ground, on rugs, carpet, bedding, upholstery, and in cracks in the floor. All of these places can make good hiding spots for fleas.
When the larvae hatch, they have no legs or eyes. Once they emerge from their eggs, they will begin to feed on dried blood found in the fecal matter that adult fleas produce.
Flea fecal matter is more commonly known as flea “dirt.” This is mainly comprised of dried blood since blood is the only thing that adult fleas consume.
In addition to feeding on the flea “dirt” that has fallen off in their vicinity, larvae will also feed on any available skin cells. As well as feeding, the larvae will search for a safe environment to grow in.
The developmental stage for the larvae is anywhere between 4-18 days. The larvae will go through three phases of growth until they reach the necessary size to begin pupating.
The color of larvae will also begin to change. When they first emerge from hatching, they are white. As they continue to feed on the flea “dirt” around them, they will become darker in color.
Habits: While larvae are blind, they can still detect changes in light. Flea larvae are less mobile and more vulnerable so places that are brightly lit are instinctively avoided. Instead, flea larvae will hide in darker areas. One such place may be inside the seams of a pet’s sleeping cushion, or maybe in cracks in the floor.
Here the larvae begin to pupate. This process is similar to that of caterpillars; they begin to produce a fine, silky thread from their abdomen. They continue until they have encased themselves completely within a cocoon.
This cocoon will protect fleas from their environment. In this state, they are resistant to variations in the temperature, as well as to some pesticides. The pupae will develop into adult fleas during this stage.
Habits: The time it takes for the adult flea to emerge from the cocoon depends on whether or not they sense a host nearby through warmth or vibrations. If they do not sense a host, they will remain in the cocoon and can stay in this encased state for up to five months without any food or light.
When people hear the word fleas, adults are what usually comes to mind. They are still minute in size but can be spotted slightly more easily.
An adult flea must feed as soon as possible after emerging from its pupae state. Female fleas must have a blood meal before they can lay their eggs.
When finding a host, the adult flea will wait until it senses one before jumping aboard. Once an adult flea has boarded a host, it is there to stay unless it is found and dislodged or eaten.
Female fleas will mate many times within the first 24 hours of boarding a host and can reproduce throughout the rest of their life cycle. They can lay as many as 180 eggs during their lifetime.
Habits: Before fleas suck blood, they are flat, which makes it even more difficult to spot them. It is only when they begin to feed that their bodies fill with blood. This ability to swell allows them to extract a large amount of blood from their hosts.
How to Treat a Flea Infestation
So, how does this play into getting rid of fleas? Why is the flea life cycle useful to know? The life cycle of fleas can only be stopped if all of the four stages are dealt with.
Fully getting rid of a flea infestation is going to take some time. With any luck it should be as little as 2 weeks, however, more severe problems could take 14 or more.
If you do not have any pets in the house there is a chance the fleas might eventually die off on their own, although this can take much longer than most are comfortable with.
Additionally, any reintroduction of a host can reactivate the infestation even months after you have seen any signs of it.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, it can be much quicker and easier to treat a flea infestation if you have a pet. This is because an effectively treated pet will kill any fleas that feed off of it and can effectively be used as flea bait…
Prevention and Quick Detection
If you have pets, it is important that they get checked regularly for fleas. This includes cats that groom themselves more efficiently than dogs. If they have tapeworms, there is a good chance they had or have fleas that transmitted the tapeworms to them.
Groom them regularly and check if there are any signs of flea activity. You might see the fleas moving around, or flea dirt that looks like black pepper-like specks in their coat.
Wash and Treat Your Pets
If you’ve noticed fleas on your pet, the quickest way to regain a bit of sanity is to bathe them using some form of soap or shampoo. This should remove any fleas and eggs that are currently residing on your pet.
You can use specially formulated flea shampoos. However, I would personally not advise relying on flea shampoos to properly deal with an infestation.
While flea shampoos usually have scents that help to deter fleas there are far more effective methods and typically anything that produces a lather will work to remove and drown the fleas which is what you want at this stage.
In my experience, the best way to then prevent your pet from becoming reinfested, and to kill off any fleas that are in your house is to use a topical or spot-on treatment such as Frontline (Amazon) instead.
This will kill any adult fleas that decide to make a meal out of your pet within 24 hours of them doing so. It is also effective for at least 1 month after treatment.
Thanks to this, fleas that are currently at a different stage in their life cycle around the home will be killed off when they do eventually mature and come into contact with your pet.
Wash Bedding and Upholstery
In addition to making sure that your pet is clean, you should keep any bedding and upholstery, clean as well. If you have a pet, focus especially on anything they spend time in close proximity to.
Washing bedding in the washing machine with a water temperature above 140°F/60°C will kill off fleas at any stage in their life cycle. Tumble drying will also kill fleas due to the high temperatures.
Vacuum, Vacuum, Vacuum…
If you have a flea infestation, it is also important that you vacuum frequently and thoroughly. This will pick up and remove fleas at any point in their life cycle from your floors and carpets.
If you have a pet, you should concentrate particularly on the areas that your pet hangs out most frequently.
Since most vacuums use a canister to collect dust and other particles, and in this case flea eggs and flea “dirt”, it is important that you properly clean it out every time you use it.
Make sure you empty the vacuum into an enclosed garbage can that is outside of your house to reduce the risk of reinfestation.
Do this daily for at least two weeks if you have an infestation for the best chance of eliminating any fleas from your floors.
Fleas also live outside, so you need to be careful in that environment as well. Fleas are much more likely to be in the shaded places of a backyard. They can sometimes be found underneath tall bushes or in flower gardens.
Fleas tend to favor long grass and piles of wood or debris. You can keep your yard mown and remove any such piles to keep your yard less appealing to fleas.
I have successfully treated fleas in my home on more than one occasion using just a combination of the methods above, however, there are also many other approaches available that you might want to consider.
These include things such as flea sprays for the home, diatomaceous earth which can be used both in the home and outside, or even flea repelling plants and other more natural remedies for your pets.
For more severe infestations, particularly if you do not have a pet, aka flea food source that can be treated, then you may need to look into other remedies or even exterminators.
Using professional pest exterminators to treat fleas in your home is certainly a more expensive but extensive approach. If you have a severe infestation then it might be something you need to consider.
You will have to clean your house thoroughly before the exterminators arrive and ensure any pets you have are treated first.
You will also likely have to leave your home for around three to five hours during treatment and make sure that your house is properly ventilated when you return.
You’ll also want to have your backyard taken care of by an extermination service as well. It will probably be worth the money to go with a company that knows the habits of fleas inside and out. An extermination service may also treat your lawn with chemicals that will help deter fleas.
If only adult fleas are targeted, the eggs, larvae, and pupae are still in the developmental stages of becoming adult fleas. They can become a problem even after you kill all the mature pests.
Because scientists and exterminators have looked at all four stages of development, they have been able to create solutions that help to target the entire lifecycle of a flea. One popular type of solution is known as an insect growth regulator (IGR).
Insect Growth Regulator (IGR)
As you may have guessed from the name, an IGR helps to control the growth rate of the insect it is being used on. IGRs are not used solely for controlling flea populations; it is also used for cockroaches, ants, etc.
The success of an IGR comes during the developmental stage of the flea larvae. The chemicals used prevent the flea from molting.
Molting is an important process of the developmental stage of all insects because it stunts the growth and maturation of the insect. When an insect molts, it creates a new exoskeleton that can protect its new matured and larger body.
As discussed earlier in the article, a flea goes through three molting stages in their development as larvae.
If an IGR is sprayed on flea eggs, it can cause the developing larvae to die, thus helping to limit the population of fleas able to reproduce.
On adult female fleas, an IGR can limit the number of viable eggs she can lay. For male adult fleas, it can simply cause infertility.
However convenient an IGR is, it is not 100% effective for a one-time treatment of a flea infestation. Because fleas can reproduce so quickly, there may be stages of fleas that haven’t been treated with the IGR.
If you feel like this is the route you want to take, it is better to consult with a company as soon as possible rather than postpone until the fleas have spread out further.