Fleas Can Jump Up to 150 Times Their Height
by Jody Green, Extension Educator
Highly magnified view of a cat flea (male).
Jim Kalisch, UNL Department of Entomology
Male and female adult fleas feed on warm-blooded animals. In the absence of a pet or animal, they will feed on humans. Fleas pierce the skin with their mouthparts that can result in painful bites and leave itchy welts. While the peak season for fleas is summertime, they can remain active and annoying year round.
Form and Function of the Flea
Fleas are reddish-brown, wingless insects approximately 1/16–1/8 inch in length. They are compressed or flattened side-to-side and have many backward projecting spines on their hardened body segments. This profile helps them navigate quickly through the hair of their hosts without being dislodged easily.
Though they do not utilize flight as transportation, they are very agile and can jump on to their host and also move from host to host.
Fleas have modified hind legs that specialize in jumping. They can jump up to 8 inches high, which is approximately 150 times higher than its height.
The Cat Flea Likes Everybody
The most common flea found in homes on dogs, cats and people is the cat flea. The cat flea has a wide host range, which includes a variety of wild animals such as feral cats, raccoons, squirrels, skunks and opossums. Cat fleas come in from outside on our clothing, pets or objects that have been in close proximity to flea-infested animals or their habitat. When fleas are found indoors on humans, bites typically occur on the legs and ankles, sometimes on the thighs and buttocks when sitting on the ground.
The Flea Life Cycle
Fleas undergo complete metamorphosis. A female flea will lay up to 50 eggs per day on the host (usually a cat). The eggs fall off to develop in the pet’s bed or favorite resting areas. This could be a specific couch cushion, the end of the bed or by the window in the living room. Legless, worm-like larvae burrow down into the carpet fibers or pet bedding to avoid light. They feed on dried blood excreted from adult fleas — called flea dirt — not directly from the cat.
Mature larvae pupate into silk-like cocoons before emerging as adults. The pupation stage can last as little as 1–2 weeks or the flea can remain in this dormant phase for months. Heat, vibrations and carbon dioxide stimulate adult emergence from the pupae because fleas detect a host. Under optimal conditions, fleas can complete the life cycle from egg to adult in a month.
But How Did We Get Fleas?
A family pet can provide all the things necessary for survival: food, water and shelter, but households without pets can also become infested. Consider wildlife living in chimneys, crawlspaces, walls or attics and the ectoparasites they bring into the home.
Some households have “indoor cats” that never go outside, while some “outdoor cats” never come in; the cats in both scenarios, if untreated, can be the source of the flea infestation. They just need to be brought in on someone’s pant leg.
In milder temperatures, yards can harbor plenty of fleas particularly those with long grass, lush vegetation and wildlife nearby.
Getting Rid of Fleas
In order to eliminate fleas from a home, treatment must include treating the pet in conjunction with treating the premise. All animals in the household should be treated at the same time. Talk to the veterinarian about effective flea treatments (topical or oral) and groom pets on a regular basis.
Insecticide applications to infested areas may be necessary for established indoor infestations. Do-it-yourself products are available at pet stores, but the label is the law. There are many safety hazards to consider when treating homes for fleas. Pets and people must not be in the home during treatment! Consider calling a pest management professional, someone who is trained, licensed and knowledgeable about flea control products, application and safety.
- Flea collars are not safe for all pets.
- Pupae/cocoons are resistant to insecticides.
- Flea collars are not safe for all insecticides, so it can take 2–4 weeks to get rid of all the fleas.
- Foggers or bug bombs are not effective for fleas.
There are no scientifically tested and approved natural products for fleas. Because pesticides will have their limitations, here are some other actions to take to help eliminate fleas in a household:
- Launder and dry bedding, rugs, towels and blankets used by pets.
- Regularly vacuum carpet, rugs, bedding, under furniture, cushions and vehicle, especially where pets rest to remove all life stages. Vibrations from the vacuum will trigger adult fleas to emerge, which is good for control measures.
- Practice proper vacuum management by sealing and discarding the contents of the vacuum bag or canister outside in the trash.
- In peak (summer) season, when pets are active outdoors it may be necessary to treat the yard for fleas.
- To test if a room has fleas, wear white, knee-length socks and walk through the room. Adult fleas will jump up and be visible on the socks.
- Make a flea trap using a shallow dish or pie pan, one part dish soap, three parts water, and a light source. The light source can be a night-light, tea candle or a directional desk lamp. Place your trap close to a pet resting area overnight until no fleas are caught.
Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln is implied. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office