Adult fleas are dark reddish-brown insects that measure less than 1/5 of an inch. They have strong legs that permit them to jump up to 100 times their own body length. To move easily through your cat's fur and keep from being dislodged, they have backward directed bristles on their legs and on their thin, laterally flattened bodies.
Fleas have a life cycle that has four stages, which is why it is so hard to get rid of them once you have an infestation in your home.
Under most household conditions, cat fleas will complete their life cycle in 3 - 4 weeks. Depending on temperature and humidity, however, the entire cycle can be completed in 12 - 14 days, or it occasionally may be prolonged for up to 6 months or more!
Flea eggs are pearly white ovals with rounded ends. They are not visible, measuring about 1/50 of an inch. Although laid in the hair coat of the host cat, the eggs are not sticky. They readily fall off into the environment. Therefore, flea eggs will be deposited in areas frequented by your cat. A female flea will lay eggs 24 to 48 hours after she has a blood meal from your cat and mated. Then, she can lay from 20 - 50 eggs a day and more than 2,000 over a lifetime! Eggs usually hatch in 1 - 6 days.
Newly hatched flea larvae are slender, white, segmented creatures sparsely covered with short hairs. They too are not visible, measuring 1/5 of an inch. The larvae feed on the organic debris in the environment, which includes feces of an adult flea. Remember what they are eating is dried and partially processed blood from your cat, the host. The larval stage usually last 5 - 11 days. Flea larvae avoid light and they move downward in response to gravity. As a result, they are found in carpet fibers, cracks, etc.
Mature larvae change into pupae inside a whitish, loosely spun, silk-like cocoon. Within 7 - 14 days, the pupae is usually developed. The length of this stage varies from 7 - 28 days. However, a fully developed flea can stay inside the cocoon for several days to several weeks (up to 180 days) until stimulated to emerge. Physical pressure, carbon dioxide, vibration, and heat can all stimulate emergence. To fleas, these stimuli signal the possible arrival of a suitable host.
Have you ever heard of someone going into a vacant house and suddenly their legs are covered with fleas? This is an example of what is called a delayed emergence. A flea population often maximizes the chances of finding a suitable host by emerging from the pupal cocoons over a period of 2 - 4 weeks instead of all at once. This phenomenon is called the pupal window effect. Since insecticides DO NOT readily kill fleas inside the cocoon, the pupal window is the reason new adult fleas can continue to emerge for up to several months after an insecticide application has killed an adult population.
As soon as an adult flea emerges from its cocoon, it immediately begins searching for a host for a blood meal. In contrast to the larvae, adults orient toward the light and move upward. In a heavily infested home, they will climb sofa skirts, chair legs, curtains, and other home furnishings. When you see fleas hopping around the house, they are not coming off of your cat. Adult fleas will not leave their host voluntarily!
When you see a pet scratching, fleas are a strong possibility. The problem is that it is more noticeable in a dog than a cat. Cats are often discreet in displaying a flea problem. Rub through their fur looking for signs such as the feces (we like to call "flea dirt") which looks like pepper. Also look where they sleep for similar signs. Remember if liquid hits "flea dirt" it will turn reddish brown because it contains your cat's blood.
The Cat's Meow offers flea baths to get all of the "flea dirt" off of your cat, as well as kill the adults. There is also a pill called Capstar that will begin killing every flea on your cat within 30 minutes. It only lasts that day and then leaves their body in urine. You will still need to treat topically to protect the cat from future fleas. We have all of the latest topical products that are safe for cats. As you begin to treat the environment, fleas will get back on your cat. Of course, we also have a variety of ways to treat your environment as well. One of our best sellers is a product that works deep in your carpets. Remember that is where the larvae go to make their cocoons. This product is guaranteed for a year as the fleas hatch in different cycles, as we also learned.
Remember not to get discouraged. The staff of The Cat's Meow can guide you every step of the way. Depending on how bad of a flea problem you have, will determine the length of time it takes to completely rid your cat and your environment of the pests! It can sometimes take months. Just remember - treat the cat, the house and even your yard to get the fastest results. We can help!
Kim Hurley, Owner/Vet Tech
Cat's Meow Veterinary Hospital