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Fleas and Your Small Pet

Did you know there are over 2000 species of flea? Cat and dog fleas are the most common species in the UK, and both can bite our small pets.

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Fleas aren’t fussy, and will take a bite from most warm-blooded animals. This includes small furries, such as hamsters, guinea pigs and rats, who usually pick them up from other pets in the home. 

Read more about common pet parasites

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What are fleas?

Fleas are small, wingless insects that, despite their inability to fly, can travel huge distances by jumping. To survive fleas must feast on warm blood, and they aren’t fussy – most household pets can be bitten by fleas, and sadly humans are also at risk too.

The flea reproduction cycle

Fleas reproduce really quickly, and live most of their life off their animal hosts. They actually reproduce much like butterflies, with larvae instead of caterpillars. As so much of the lifecycle happens off your pet controlling an infestation of fleas can be a difficult job.

  1. Adult fleas are brought into the house by pets with outdoor access, or who mingle with other pets.
  2. The adult flea lays eggs. She must have fed to lay (an adult flea that cannot find food will die before laying). She can lay up to 500 eggs in her lifetime!
  3. The eggs are small and white, and while they are often laid on the host, they aren’t attached in any way. This means as the originally infested pet moves around your home the eggs will slide off, and get buried into carpet fibres, cracks in the floor, soft furnishings and pet bedding. It is estimated that if you have fleas in your home, half of the population will currently be in egg form.
  4. Eggs will hatch into flea larvae within twelve days. These larvae are like the caterpillar stage of butterflies – completely different to the adults. Larvae do not food on blood, and instead feed on organic debris in the home. They don’t like the light, so tend to burrow deeper into wherever they are. This means you rarely see them, although they actually make up about 35% of the flea population in your home.
  5. After approximately 1-3 weeks, larvae will spin themselves a cocoon and start to change into adult fleas. The developing larvae in side are now called pupae. Approximately 10% of the flea population in your home at any time will be pupae.
  6. It is the pupae that make fleas so difficult to eradicate. In favourable conditions, pupae will hatch into adult fleas within days to weeks, but in unfavourable conditions pupae can remain dormant in their cocoons for months! They ae also sticky, so are hard to remove with light vacuuming or sweeping.
  7. When conditions are right an adult flea will emerge. They must locate a new host quickly, and feed, in order to start the life cycle again and lay their eggs. These adult fleas are not fussy, and can jump on our small furries if no more obvious targets are to be seen!

How can my small furry get fleas?

It is very unusual for small furries to get fleas unless another household pet, such as a cat or a dog, has fleas first. These fleas then jump from one pet to another, and can put your pet at risk. 

How do I know if my small furry has fleas?

Some small pets may not show any signs of a flea infestation, but as fleas are relatively large parasites even a few fleas can cause your small furry quite a lot of distress. 

Signs of a flea infestation can include:

  • Your small furry nibbling or biting at their skin. If you have more than one small furry you may see them itching too - it is likely that any other pets in the home are also infested. You may even be itching yourself, and see red bumps on your skin where fleas have bitten.
  • Flea dirt. Flea eggs are white and hard to spot, but flea dirt (a mixture of flea poo and dried blood) can often be seen on the skin of pets who have fleas. This looks like little reddish brown specks, and can be mistaken for grains of soil.
  • A good test to see if specks on your pet’s coat are actual dirt or flea diet is the wet paper test. Get some damp paper towel or cotton wool and gently wipe up some of the specks. If the area around the speck turns reddish-brown, it’s flea dirt.
  • Live fleas. You may be able to see live fleas in your pet’s coat if you part the fur or stroke them backwards. Fleas are very fast though, and can be difficult to see, although the small size of pets like hamsters, rats and chinchillas makes them easier to spot! Along the spine and around the neck are good places to look.
  • Anaemia. In heavily infested pets, a flea infestation can cause so much blood loss that they become anaemic. This can look like weakness, and pale gums.
  • Hair loss and scaling. Patches of hair loss, and dandruff-like skin scaling may be seen on your pet, giving them a moth-eaten appearance.

Some of these signs can also be seen with other skin parasites or diseases. If you see any of these signs, getting your small furry checked out by your local Vets4Pets vet can make sure you get the right diagnosis and treatment. 

How can I stop my small furry getting fleas?

Vets do not recommend routine treatment against fleas, or any parasites, in small furries as they are quite uncommon. In households with cats and dogs, keeping their flea protection up to date should provide protection for your other household pets too. 

If you do see signs of fleas in your small pet, your vet can recommend safe treatment which is easily applied.  

Help! My small furry has fleas!

Our main UK fleas are not very fussy, and are more than happy to snack on an unsuspecting human! Making us itchy and sore, flea bites are often an unpleasant herald of the presence of fleas in the home.

Flea bites can also cause more than itchy skin. Bartonella (also called cat scratch disease) can be transmitted by flea faeces; either by being accidentally ingested, or by getting into small breaks in the skin. Causing a low grade fever and swelling of the lymph nodes, bartonella infection can often be mistaken for the flu, and in many cases resolves on its own. Sadly, however, in some people bartonella infection can develop and cause chronic fatigue and headaches, and may become very debilitating.

What about my health?

Our main UK fleas are not very fussy, and are more than happy to snack on an unsuspecting human! Making us itchy and sore, flea bites are often an unpleasant herald of the presence of fleas in the home.

Flea bites can also cause more than itchy skin. Bartonella (also called cat scratch disease) can be transmitted by flea faeces; either by being accidentally ingested, or by getting into small breaks in the skin. Causing a low grade fever and swelling of the lymph nodes, bartonella infection can often be mistaken for the flu, and in many cases resolves on its own. Sadly, however, in some people bartonella infection can develop and cause chronic fatigue and headaches, and may become very debilitating.