Backyard gatherings and hiking expeditions are two of the most popular outdoor activities when the weather begins to warm up, but, unfortunately, they both pose a threat of exposure to fleas and/or ticks. Parasites, such as fleas and ticks, survive by finding a warm-blooded host from which they can extract a blood meal. Hosts can be any creatures that pass by these pests, including humans, dogs, and cats, that can provide that blood meal. The bites left behind by fleas and ticks are unsightly and bothersome, but the diseases transmitted by them are the reason these pests are so feared. Especially between spring and fall, it is important to know how to differentiate between these disease vectors so that you and your family can stay informed and protected.
Fleas live, breed, and feed on warm-blooded hosts because, simply put, they have to. Without a host, a flea is not able to survive more than a couple weeks. Once a suitable and preferably long-haired host is found, adult fleas will feed on the blood of the host and mate. The eggs of a flea are not sticky and usually fall to the ground immediately after being laid. The female will lay her eggs within 36 to 48 hours of her first blood meal, and those eggs will hatch within 1 to 10 days.
After hatching, fleas enter their larval stage for up to 3 weeks. The larvae look for shaded areas with high humidity where they will spin a cocoon and enter the pupa stage. The flea can survive in this cocoon for months, and it will not emerge until it senses the presence of a viable host. Once a host is nearby, the adult flea emerges and attaches itself to that host to start the cycle over again.
Fleas are parasitic insects that are very small, but they can be identified by the naked eye. As insects, fleas have 6 legs and only grow to about ⅛ of an inch as adults. Their bodies are very thin and are typically a reddish-brown color. The legs of an adult flea dangle under its body and head, with its back two legs being considerably longer than the others, making it an excellent jumper.
If you suspect a flea infestation may be lurking somewhere but you can not find the adult fleas, look for their dirt! Flea feces, commonly called dirt, are always present at the site of an infestation. Flea dirt appears as tiny, dark reddish specks in the areas where fleas are present, including near the skin under your pet’s fur. While fleas may move and evade your searches, their dirt is always an indicator of an infestation.
Identifying Flea Bites
Fleas generally jump onto people’s legs when taking a human for a host. Because of this, flea bites on humans are often found around the feet, ankles, and calves. Fleas latch onto and pierce the skin of the host so that they can draw out blood. A single flea can bite up to hundreds of times per day, and those multiple bites may show up as a cluster or a line of tiny red welts. Unlike ticks, fleas move around the host very quickly, and they are extremely difficult to grab with your fingers or tweezers.
If you see a line or cluster of bites on your lower legs and suspect fleas are the culprits, washing with a flea and tick shampoo, or even just soap and water, will kill most of the adult fleas. For pets, a flea comb and specialty shampoo is the way to go. Make sure you are thoroughly cleaning the infected areas. While flea bites are not typically a serious situation, many diseases can be transferred by fleas, such as plague, typhus, and cat scratch disease. Consult with a medical professional after a flea infestation to make sure you and your loved ones are disease free.
Contrary to a popular misconception, fleas do not have wings and can not fly. They can, however, jump up to 8 inches vertically and even longer horizontally, which is primarily how they land on their hosts. As stated above, fleas need a host to survive, but they will wait in shaded, moist areas until a host is near. Common environments where you may find a flea infestation include the soil in your yard, shrubbery, carpets, pockets of clothing, shoes, and fur of pets.
Fleas may appear in your yard and home from any number of sources, but the most common source is other animals transferring the fleas from elsewhere. Squirrels, mice, opossums, and countless other animals could run into your yard while infected with fleas, thereby spreading the infection to your property. While they would prefer to jump onto a new host directly, fleas can and will wait in your yard until a host is near, at which point they will jump onto the new host. In ideal conditions, and if left undisturbed, fleas would live out their entire lives on one host.
Just like fleas, ticks must have a host in order to survive. While most ticks also mate while on their host, they do not lay eggs on hosts. Rather, the female has to detach from and fall off of the host before it can lay eggs. The female lays her eggs in a shaded and moist area, similar to the ideal environment for a flea. From there, the newly hatched larvae look for a host on which it can feed and mature until it is ready to move onto the next host.
Ticks go through 4 stages: eggs, larvae, nymphs, and adults. In order to mature to the next stage of its life, a tick must feed on a different host. This means that, unlike fleas, ticks can not survive on the same host for their entire lives. Larvae and nymphs will both feed for 3-4 days before finding a new host, and adults will feed up to 10 days before the female detaches and starts the process at the beginning. Ticks can live up to 3 years but will die much quicker if they can not find a host and mature at each stage.
Ticks are not insects; they are actually part of the arachnid family. While most larvae have only 6 legs, ticks develop 8 legs as they mature. Adult ticks are bigger than fleas and easier to identify, but they are still very small. Certain types of ticks can grow to about ¼ of an inch as adults, and they become even larger as they feed and engorge themselves. Adult ticks are typically oval-shaped and very flat until they fill up on a blood meal. Their colors can range from a reddish-brown to a grayish color, and they may even appear faintly blue when fully engorged. Their small and pointed mouthparts sit at the front of their bodies and are easily noticeable.
Ticks can be dangerous, so it is important to know how to spot a tick infestation. If you suspect you have a tick infestation but can not find an adult tick, the eggs are an obvious identifier. Tick eggs are small, but the female tick can lay thousands of eggs at once that remain together in a mass. The egg mass is a dark reddish color that is often likened in appearance to caviar. Many tick infestations are first identified by people spotting an egg mass.
Identifying Tick Bites
The bite of a tick normally produces mild itching and a splotchy rash over the bite area. Check under ears, behind knees, around armpits, and everywhere else on the host to search for the ticks. Ticks burrow their heads and mouthparts into the skin of a host, and adults are often found in the act of feeding. While it can be alarming to see a parasite burrowed into the skin of you or your furry friend, it is important to stay calm and remove the tick properly. Adult ticks are large enough to see and remove using only a pair of tweezers.
When removing a tick, the tweezers need to be as close to the skin as possible before applying pressure to the tick. Once in place, tweezers should be squeezed with steady and even pressure, but do NOT squish the tick while it is latched. Once removed, ticks can be destroyed by dropping them into a shallow bowl of rubbing alcohol. Bites from ticks are usually not life threatening, but certain diseases transmitted by ticks can become severe illnesses, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever or Lyme disease. If you see a red welt at the bite site that has a red ring around it, forming a distinct bullseye, call a medical professional immediately, as this is a tell-tale sign of Lyme disease.
The activities and habits of ticks may seem to be the same as those of fleas, but there are a few clear differences between the lifestyles of fleas and ticks. Fleas are quick and infect hosts by jumping onto them, but ticks are not capable of jumping or even moving very quickly. Instead, ticks prefer to wait at the edge of a blade of grass or on the flower of a plant, and they latch onto a nearby host as soon as contact is made. This is why ticks are such a problem for pets and children who are constantly rolling around in the yard.
Though ticks do require multiple hosts for maturity and survival, they spend much of their time searching for those hosts in heavily wooded areas. Ticks are used to surviving while not on a host because they drop off of a host each time they are finished feeding. Adult ticks can sit and wait for hundreds of days before they find a new host for a blood meal. Once they find their way
onto your property, likely from a smaller rodent, ticks will wait in your yard all season until a host is within reach. As soon as they start breeding, your yard and home can become infested quickly.
Preventing Flea And Tick Infestations
It may be a hassle to have to stay mindful of fleas and ticks every time you want to step into your yard this summer, but knowing how to prevent and control a flea or tick outbreak is important to the health of your loved ones. Luckily, as both types of pests thrive in similar environments, there are easy steps you can take to prevent and treat an infestation from both fleas and ticks. Of course, we would like to suggest that you call Heartland Turf & Landscape for the best flea and tick control service in Kansas City, but below are a few ways you can mitigate an infestation on your own.
- Mow the lawn frequently in order to expose your lawn and the soil to sunshine. Fleas and ticks avoid sunlight as much as possible.
- Do not overwater your plants/lawn. Humidity is a leading cause of infestations for both types of pests, and overwatering will lead to a humid yard.
- Rake leaves, tree debris, and any other organic clutter as soon as it accumulates to minimize the amount of hiding places for pests.
- Keep rodents and other animals away from your yard by storing food, covering trash cans, etc. Do not allow an opportunity for critters to transfer ticks and fleas into your yard.
- Be aware of your surroundings, and know if you are in an area that has had pest problems. Stay on trails and marked routes when hiking.
- Wear thick, light-colored clothing, and make sure to have on long sleeves and pants. Fleas and ticks can only bite through very thin fabrics.
- Shower and examine yourself after being outside. Just like in nature, these pests prefer shaded areas on your body, such as armpits, belly buttons, between toes, around ears, etc.
- Spray a safe and effective repellent on your clothing before and after spending time outside. Do not allow yourself to be the reason your home has a pest problem.
- Monitor and limit how your pet spends time outdoors. Even going to a neighborhood park with your pooch places your pet at a higher risk of becoming a host.
- Avoid letting your pet near unfamiliar animals. Pets that look clean can still carry parasites, so avoid letting your own pet interact with animals you do not personally know.
- Wash your pet with a flea and tick shampoo in the warmer months, and start applying a flea and tick medicine in spring. Even regular antibacterial soap can kill fleas, and specialized pet shampoos and medicines are designed to keep your pet safe.
- Keep checking! Using a flea comb consistently is the best way to spot an infestation, and regularly combing your pet will give you peace of mind that your loved ones are safe.