Fleas are small, approximately 1.3 to 3.2 mm long, dark to red-brown insects that feed on mammals’ blood. The adults have no wings, are laterally flatter and are well armoured, all of which help them survive on animal hosts and make it more difficult to eradicate fleas. The back legs are very well-developed for jumping considerable distances relative to body size. Adult fleas have developed mouth-parts that facilitate their sucking blood from their host.
Cat and dog fleas are similar in appearance and both will feed on a human host
Fleas have the four life cycle stages – egg, larva, pupa and adult.
The fleas life cycle begins when the female adult flea lays after feeding. Adult fleas have to take in a blood meal before they can become capable of laying eggs and reproduction is normally asexual. Eggs are laid in batches of up to 20 or so, usually on the host itself, which means that the eggs can easily roll onto the ground. Because of this, areas where the host rests and sleeps become one of the main locations for eggs and developing fleas. The eggs normally take 7-10 days for the larvae to emerge.
Flea larvae hatch from the eggs to feed on any available organic food sources such as dead insects, vegetable matter etc. The larvae are blind and avoid sunlight, keeping to dark places such as cracks and crevices, and pet bedding. If food sources are available, the larvae will pupate within 1–2 weeks and after 1-2 weeks, the adult flea will be fully developed and ready to emerge from the cocoon. They may however remain resting in the cocoon during this period until they receive a sign that an animal host is nearby, such as vibrations, noise or heat. Fleas can remain in the cocoon or stay as larvae throughout the winter awaiting warmer weather and food sources.
Once the flea reaches adulthood, its primary goal is to find blood and reproduce. Adult fleas only have about a week to find food once they emerge, but after that they can survive two months to a year between meals. Flea populations are unevenly distributed between the life-cycle stages, with about 50% eggs, 35% larvae, 10% pupae, and 5% adults. Consequently the presence of adult fleas will be an indication of a much more significant underlying problem. Female fleas can lay 500 or more eggs over their life, allowing for extremely rapid population growth.
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