Pests can cause itchiness and irritation, and fleas are some of the biggest culprits around. These are small parasites that feed on the blood of birds and mammals like humans,1 cats, dogs, rabbits, hedgehogs and foxes.2
Fleas are either dark brown or reddish brown, measure 2.5 millimeters long, have six legs and possess flat and wingless bodies.3,4
Their physical structure enables them to move easily within an animal’s fur5 and jump vertical distances of up to 20 centimeters (8 inches) and horizontal lengths of 41 centimeters (16 inches.)6 Fleas are also covered in hair, allowing them to root to the host effectively, and have mouthparts that they use to extract blood.7
The most common flea that affects humans, cats and dogs is the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis), although anyone can be infected with either the dog flea (Ctenocephalides canis) or the human flea (Pulex irritans).8
Although it may seem like getting bitten by fleas is inevitable, this does not mean that you should not do anything about it. There are prevention techniques that could potentially shield you, your family and even your furry companions, as well as natural methods to effectively eliminate them.
How Do Fleas Affect Your Body?
On human skin, flea bites show up as itchy red spots surrounded by reddened haloes. In some cases, you may experience hives or develop a rash.9,10
The marks often appear in groups of three or four, on a straight line. Flea bites are often visible on the legs and feet, although they can be seen on the ankles, waist, armpit, breasts, groin or elbow and knee folds.11 If flea bites aren’t treated immediately, complications could arise, such as:12
• Allergic reactions: the severity of allergic reactions to flea bites depends on how the patient reacts to it in the first place. Oftentimes, patients who develop allergic reactions to flea bites notice small and raised reddish or purplish lesions called papules.
Other typical symptoms of allergic reactions to flea bites are difficulty in breathing, dizziness, nausea, chest pain and swelling of the tongue or lips. In rare cases, an anaphylactic shock can occur.13
• Tapeworm: this is typically transferred via infected fleas in cats and dogs. However, if a child accidentally ingests an infected flea, a tapeworm infection could happen too.
• Typhus: flea bites can result in either murine typhus or flea typhus. Typhus is a type of infectious disease that results in high fever, headache, delirium and occasional red rashes.
• Plague: sometimes, rodent fleas that infect dogs and cats could carry a bacteria strain that could cause a plague called Yesinia pestis.14 The fleas can also target and infect humans.
Pets Are Common Carriers of Fleas
Fleas usually infest domestic house pets like dogs and cats.15 In fact, they are most commonly visible while they are moving in the fur of a pet that they have infested.16
Your pets can pick up these parasites even when they just walk or play in locations that may be flea-infested, whether you know it or not. Pets who go to warm, dark and moist places or walk on woodpiles, leaves and grass clippings are also prone to acquiring fleas.
Other places such as animal dens, particularly those of feral cats, are known hiding places for fleas.17 Your pet could also be infected when he is placed in a kennel and interacts with other animals that may already have been infected.18 Wild animals like rabbits, raccoons and possums could also be carriers of fleas.
Fortunately, there are indicators that can help you identify if your dog or cat is suffering from a flea infestation. If you have a dog, look for red raised welts that are as small as a pin head and appear on the head, neck and along the tail area.
These bites could also be inflamed and grow bigger, especially if the dog keeps scratching the area. Check for red and sore areas on your dog’s body too.19
Cats who have been infected with fleas may have tiny pink or red crusty bumps with a slightly pointed center, and tend to scratch or lick their skin.
Watch out for hot spots, wherein a portion of the skin may develop scabs due to constant scratching and itching.20 Other symptoms that indicate a flea infestation on a dog or cat include:21
✓ Flea dirt or flea feces on the pet or areas where the pet has been
✓ Red skin
✓ Unusual skin color
✓ Ear infections
✓ Immune disease
✓ Ulcers on the lips, for cats
✓ Hair loss
✓ Crusty skin
Having your pet treated for flea bites immediately will not only solve the ailment in the short-term, but prevent further long-term harm from occurring. Pets may experience these complications if the flea bites are not treated immediately:22
- Severe discomfort such as scratching, chewing, biting and restlessness
- Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), which is the most common dermatological condition in animals
- Anemia, especially among young or smaller pets or debilitated adult pets, when a severe flea infestation has occurred
- Tapeworm infections if the flea was ingested
How to Check If Your Household and Pets Are Infected With Fleas
In your household, fleas can live in carpets or bedding if their population increases. They may also live in backyards, especially in areas with tall grass or in shaded areas near decks, woodpiles or storage buildings.23,24
To check if your household has been infected with fleas or not, try walking on your carpet while wearing white socks, and then see if there are tiny black bodies on your soles afterwards.25
You can also rub a moist white towel on floors or carpets where you notice flea dirt that may look like black pepper at first glance. If there are tiny red streaks on the towel, this indicates the presence of fleas.26
On the other hand, practice combing either your cat’s or dog’s hair using a fine-toothed, metal flea comb that you can purchase from either a veterinarian or pet supply store.
Try combing your pet while they are lying down on a white piece of paper or while they are sitting down. If you notice black spots that look like dirt and turn red when placed on a damp piece of paper, then they are fleas.27,28
There are also certain factors that can increase your and your pets’ risk for a flea infestation:29
- Your location, as fleas are more common in areas that are warmer and have low altitude
- Changing seasons, since warmer weather means that flea populations can rise
- Lack of proper flea control
- Inability to properly groom themselves, especially among young, weak or ill animals
- Having an outdoor pet, although indoor-only pets can still be affected with flea infestations in endemic areas
How to Treat Bites and Eliminate Fleas for Good
Flea bites are said to go away even without treatment, but you have to take measures to prevent fleas from affecting you in the first place.30 Keeping your household clean is a major step in combatting these pesky parasites. Vacuum surfaces like carpets and rugs thoroughly, since fleas often hide within the fibers of these surfaces.31
Don’t forget to wash your beddings frequently, and rotate your mattress from time to time, especially since fleas depend on body humidity to survive. Make it a point to regularly wash or dry clean your curtains, too. You can also give the curtains a good shake outdoors and let them hang under the bright sun. Sunlight dries up the fleas and sterilizes the material.32
Unfortunately, if your home has already been infested, you can try the following remedies:33
• Dishwashing Liquid Flea Trap: prepare a bowl filled with a mixture of warm water and detergent. Place it on the floor and shine a lamp over the water. These parasites jump into the water since they attracted to the light, where the soap eventually kills them.34
• Herbal Flea Spray: combine 1 gallon of vinegar, ½ gallon of water, 16 ounces of lemon juice and 8 ounces of witch hazel into a garden sprayer. Spray this mixture after you have vacuumed your house, especially on carpets, furniture, pet bedding, windowsills and floors to get rid of fleas.
Although calling in a professional pest control experts might seem like a good idea, this could put a hole in your wallet. You might only want to call them should natural treatments prove to be no match.35
If you have already been bitten by fleas, refrain from giving in to the urge to scratch, since this can cause further skin damage and even a secondary bacterial infection.36 Make sure to contact a physician immediately if this occurs.37 Fortunately, there are items you can find at home that can be utilized to treat flea bites, such as:38
- Tea bags: you can place a used tea bag gently on the affected area to help neutralize the itching and promote healing. In particular, use black tea since they have healing properties that could potentially alleviate itching.
- Baking soda: mix baking soda with a small amount of water to form a paste. Apply the mixture on the bite to lessen the itching.
- Aloe vera: this plant is known to be effective when it comes to healing burns and other skin ailments. Apply aloe vera gel on the affected area, or if you have an aloe vera plant, take a leaf, peel it open and rub generously on the bite.
- Lavender essential oil and basil: this combination is effective for flea bites since it lessen inflammation and reduces itchiness.
Help Your Pet Fight Fleas Effectively
Pets who scratch more often may be experiencing a flea infestation.39 To treat fleas in pets, you can try using specially formulated natural and organic shampoos. Just make sure to use cold water when rinsing the shampoo. Warm or hot water can exacerbate itching, while cold water can help in alleviating inflammation.40 These natural treatment methods can also work for either your dog or cat:41,42
Rosemary flea dip: take 2 cups of fresh rosemary sprigs, boil them in water for half an hour and strain the liquid. Add the resulting mixture to 1 gallon of water.
Once the solution is warm but not too hot, pour the water on an infested dog and let it air dry.
Apple cider vinegar: although this does not kill the fleas, this makes them jump out of your pet’s coat.
Combine a portion of apple cider vinegar and water, at a 2:1 ratio. Mix well and fill a spray bottle with the solution. Spritz the mixture on the cat’s skin. However, should the acidity of the vinegar become too abrasive for the cat, dilute the mixture.43
Lavender essential oil: place a few drops of the oil at the back of your dog’s neck and at the base of the tail to control a flea infestation.
Diatomaceous Earth (DE): this can be used when you crush it into powder. The sharp edges of DE may slice through the flea’s waxy and tough exoskeleton, causing the parasite to become dehydrated and die.
Prior to using DE, make sure that you put on gloves and dust your hands with the substance, while making sure to avoid contact with your eyes or nose. Then, sprinkle DE onto a cat’s coat and rub thoroughly.
Lemon spray: cut a whole lemon into quarters. Place the fruit in boiling water, submerging it completely. Let it steep overnight.
Pour the liquid in a spray bottle and squirt on the body parts of your pet where they are affected with fleas. You can also soak a piece of cloth in the solution and rub it gently on the affected areas.
If your pet does not respond well to any of these natural treatment methods or if he already has a drastic flea infestation, consult a trusted holistic veterinarian immediately to help you come up with an effective solution.