and Control of Flea
and Tick Infestations
Byron L.Blagburn, BS, MS, PhDa,*, MichaelW.Dryden, DVM, PhDb
Flea and tick infestations of pets and the home environment are a common
occurrence and their elimination can be an expensive and time-consuming problem.
Many problems in control can be related to a lack of understanding of parasite biology
and ecology. In fact many advances in control of fleas can be directly linked to
advances in our knowledge of the intricacies of flea host associations, reproduction,
and survival in the premises. Understanding tick biology and ecology is far more
difficult than with fleas, because North America can have up to nine different tick
species infesting cats and dogs compared to one primary flea species. The range
and local density of certain tick species has increased in many areas because of
changes in climate, vegetation, agricultural practices, wildlife host abundance, acari-
cide usage, and probably several other factors. Whatever the reason, tick infestation
pressure may be much higher and associated tick-transmitted diseases may be more
prevalent in some locations today than in the past.
Flea infestations are probably the most common ectoparasitic affliction of dogs and
cats in North America. Although more than 2200 species and subspecies of fleas
are known throughout the world, only Ctenocephalides felis felis (cat flea),
Ctenocephalides canis (dog flea), Pulex simulans, and Echidnophaga gallinacea
(poultry sticktight flea) occur in large numbers on dogs and cats with enough regularity
to be of importance as nuisance pests.1,2In North America, the most commonly
encountered flea species on dogs and cats is C f felis (Fig. 1).1,2
The term ‘‘cat flea,’’ which isthe approved common name for C f felis,can occasion-
ally cause confusion. When it appears in print, it refers to the specific flea genus and
aDepartment of Pathobiology, 166 Greene Hall, College of Veterinary Medicine, Auburn
University, Auburn AL 36849-5519, USA
bDepartment of Diagnostic Medicine/Pathology, College of Veterinary Medicine, Kansas State
University, Manhattan, KS 66506, USA
* Corresponding author.
E-mail address: email@example.com (B.L. Blagburn).
? Flea ? Tick ? Biology ? Treatment ? Control ? Disease
Vet Clin Small Anim 39 (2009) 1173–1200
0195-5616/09/$ – see front matter ª 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
species and not to fleas recovered from cats. There are four recognized subspecies of
C felis throughout the world: Ctenocephalides felis damarensis and C felis strongylus
occur primarily in East Africa, C felis orientis occurs in India and Australia, and the
widespread C f felis occurs in all continents except Antarctica and is the only subspe-
cies that occurs in North America.2Therefore, most of the North American literature
refers to the cat flea as C felis. Because the cat flea is the most common flea on
domestic dogs and cats in North America and has been extensively investigated,
the following discussions on flea biology will be confined to the cat flea.
The cat flea, C felis, is a clinically important parasite of domestic pets, being respon-
sible for the production of allergic dermatitis, serving as the vector of various bacterial
pathogens, and being the intermediate host for filarid and cestode parasites.
Flea allergy dermatitis (see later discussion for detail) is the most common
dermatologic disease of dogs and a major cause of feline miliary dermatitis.1,2It is
an immunologic disease in which a hypersensitive state is produced in a host, result-
ing from the injection of antigenic material from the salivary glands of fleas. Blood
consumption by fleas can produce iron deficiency anemia and even death in heavy
infestations.1,2Ctenocephalides felis has also been recently implicated in the trans-
mission of Rickettsia typhi, Rickettsia felis, Bartonella henselae and other Bartonella
spp, Mycoplasma haemofelis, and in rare cases, even Yersinia pestis.3–6Ctenocepha-
lides felis also serves as an intermediate host of the nonpathogenic subcutaneous
filarid nematode of dogs, Acanthocheilonema (Dipetalonema) reconditum. Several
species of cestodes can also be carried by C felis, including Dipylidium caninum
and Hymenolepis nana.1,2
Flea eggs are pearly white and oval, with rounded ends, and are 0.5 mm in length.
Eggs will usually hatch in 1 to 10 days, depending on temperature and humidity.7,8
Newly hatched flea larvae are slender, white, segmented, sparsely covered with short
hairs, and 2 to 5 mm in length; they possess a pair of anal struts (Fig.2).Larvae are free
living, feeding on adult flea feces (which are essential for successful development), on
organic debris that is found in their environment, and on flea eggs.1,2Once the larvae
have ingested adult flea feces or other material, they become darker. Flea larvae avoid
Fig.1. Adult female cat flea (C felis).
Blagburn & Dryden
direct sunlight in their microhabitat, actively moving deep into carpet fibers or under
organic debris (grass, branches, leaves, or soil).2Flea larvae undergo two molts,
usually over 5 to 11 days, before developing into the pupal stage.7,8
Flea larvae are extremely susceptible to heat and desiccation.8,9Moisture in the
larval environment is essential for development, with relative humidity lower than
50% causing desiccation, and larvae that are maintained in soil with low moisture
levels fail to develop.8Because larvae are susceptible to heat and desiccation, devel-
opment outdoors probably occurs only where the ground is shaded and moist. The
flea-infested host also needs to spend a significant amount of time in these areas,
so that adult flea feces will be deposited into the larval environment.
The mature third instar larva produces a 0.5-cm–long, whitish, loosely spun silklike
cocoon in which it undergoes pupation. The cocoon is sticky and becomes coated
with debris from the environment. Cocoons are found in soil, in carpets, under furni-
ture, and on animal bedding. At 27?C (80.6?F) and 80% relative humidity, fleas begin
to emerge approximately 5 days after pupation, and they reach peak emergence in 8
to 9 days.10,11Once the pupa has fully developed, the pre-emerged adult flea within
the cocoon can be stimulated to emerge from the cocoon by physical pressure,
carbon dioxide, and heat.12If the pre-emerged adult does not receive an emergence
stimulus, it may remain quiescent in the cocoon for several weeks or months until
a suitable host arrives.12
The entire life cycle of C felis can be completed in 12 to 14 days, or it can be pro-
longed up to 174 days, depending on temperature and humidity within the microenvi-
ronment.12However, under most household conditions, nearly all cat fleas will
complete their life cycle within 3 to 8 weeks.
The adult C felis depends primarily on visual cues to locate hosts.13Factors such as
flea age, CO2, and temperature modify their responsiveness.13It has been determined
that C felis adults are most sensitive to green light with wavelengths between 510 and
550 nm.13,14Ctenocephalides felis adults that have emerged in dark areas, such as
under porches, in crawl spaces, or under beds or sofas, will orient and move toward
a light source. They then jump when the light source is suddenly and temporarily inter-
If the newly emerged C felis adults do not immediately acquire a host, they can
survive several days before requiring a blood meal. As with immature life stages,
Fig. 2. Third instar larva of C felis.
Biology, Treatment, and Control of Fleas and Ticks
survival of adult fleas is highly dependent on temperature and humidity. In moisture-
saturated air, 62% of adult C felis survived for 62 days, whereas only 5% survived
for 12 days when maintained at 22.5?C and 60% RH (relative humidity).10,15It is
unlikely that adult or immature fleas in the premises can survive during winter in
northern temperate regions. It has been shown that no life cycle stage (egg, larva,
pupa, or adult) can survive for 10 days at 3?C (37.4?F) or 5 days at 1?C (33.8?F).10
Numerous warm blooded animals play host to C felis. In North America, various
nondomesticated hosts that harbor cat fleas have been reported, including coyotes,
red and gray fox, bobcats, skunks, several rodent species, raccoons, opossums, Flor-
ida panthers, poultry, calves, and ferrets.1,2With such a large number of alternative
hosts, several of which often live in close proximity to humans and their pets, it is likely
that flea-infested wild animals or feral dogs and cats are serving as continual sources
of reinfestation. Newly emerged fleas, in carpets or outdoors, often bite humans
before colonizing their preferred host. Because C felis is not highly cold-tolerant, it
has been postulated that it is surviving in cold climates in the urban environment, as
adults on untreated dogs and cats or on small wild mammals, such as opossums
and raccoons.1,2Because these animals pass through yards in the spring, or establish
nesting sites in crawl spaces or attics, eggs drop off and develop into adults. Cat fleas
may also survive the winter, as pre-emerged adults in microenvironments that are pro-
tected from the cold.1,2
Once on a host, C felis initiates feeding within seconds to minutes.16In one study,
approximately 25% of fleas were blood-fed within 5 minutes, and in another, the
volume of blood consumed by fleas was quantifiable within 5 minutes.17,18Mating
occurs on the host after feeding and can occur within 8 to 24 hours.16Female cat fleas
begin egg production within 24 to 36 hours of their first blood meal.19They lay eggs
within the pelage of the host, but because the eggs are not sticky, they drop out of
the hair into the surrounding premises. Ctenocephalides felis is a highly fecund
organism, with the female reaching peak egg production at 40 to 50 eggs per day
and producing approximately 1300 eggs during the first 50 days on a host. Ctenoce-
phalides felis can continue to produce eggs at a gradually declining rate for more than
100 days.19To produce such a large quantity of eggs, female cat fleas consume an
average of 13.6 mL of blood per day, which is equivalent to 15.15 times their body
weight.16While feeding, female cat fleas excrete large quantities of incompletely di-
gested blood, which dries within minutes into reddish-black fecal pellets or tubular
coils that are often called ‘‘flea dirt’’ or ‘‘frass.’’ Flea feces can often be found matted
into the pelage.
Actively feeding and reproducing C felis adults are fairly permanent ectoparasites.
When normal grooming activity of cats was restricted, an average of 85% of female
and 58% of male fleas were still present on cats after 50 days.19When fleas that
role in their survival and longevity on that host. When cats are allowed to groom freely,
they will ingest or groom off a substantial number of fleas in a few days.10,20When cat
still alive at 14 days.15This is of particular importance, because one study showed that
when cats were housed adjacent to each other but physically separated, 3% to 8% of
transfer from one host to another.21However, it is far more likely that most flea infesta-
tions originate from previously unfed fleas emerging from environments that have
supported development of immature life stages.
Blagburn & Dryden
There are two primary tick families, Argasidae (soft ticks) and Ixodidae (hard ticks). In
North America, the ticks of most importance to dogs, cats, and their owners are the
Ixodidae or hard ticks. Hard ticks are characterized by a hardened dorsal shield
(scutum) and a head (capitulum) that extend in front of the body. Many species also
have eye spots on the scutum and posterior indentations called festoons that can
be used to aid in identification. Additionally, the Ixodidae commonly found on dogs
and cats in North America are all three-host ticks, feeding once on a different host after
molting in each motile stage (larva, nymph, and adult).22,23
Most ticks in motile life stages that infest dogs and cats use an ambush technique
called questing, although Ixodes spp may use ambush and hunter tactics.23Ticks do
not jump onto hosts or drop out of trees. Ticks that use the ambush strategy climb
onto weeds, grasses, bushes, or other leafy vegetation, extend their forelegs that
contain a sensory apparatus called the Haller organ, and wait for passing hosts to
brush against the vegetation. When the host brushes against the plant, the tick imme-
diately releases the vegetation and crawls onto the host.
Mating by ticks in the genera Amblyomma, Dermacentor, and Rhipicephalus occurs
on the host after feeding. Certain species of Ixodes often mate off the host before
feeding, but may mate while on the host.24During the first 24 to 36 hours following
attachment to the host, little or no ingestion of blood takes place.25During this period,
ticks use their chelicerae to cut the epidermis and insert their hypostome, which
contains backward directed spines. Following insertion of the hypostome, many ticks
reinforce their attachment by secreting a cementlike substance from their salivary
glands.23,26Once the feeding site is established, the tick begins the second slow
feeding phase, which lasts for several days. The slow feeding phase is followed by
a rapid feeding phase. During the rapid feeding phase, which occurs 12 to 36 hours
before detachment, the mated female tick may increase dramatically in size, often
reaching 100 times her unfed body weight.25,26
TICKS SPECIES INFESTING DOGS AND CATS
The tick species that most commonly infest dogs and cats in North America are
Amblyomma americanum (Lone Star tick), Amblyomma maculatum (Gulf Coast tick),
Dermacentor occidentalis (Pacific Coast tick), Dermacentor variabilis (American dog
tick), Dermacentor andersoni (Rocky Mountain wood tick) Ixodes pacificus (western
black-legged tick), Ixodes scapularis (black-legged tick), Otobius megnini (spinose
ear tick) and Rhipicephalus sanguineus (brown dog tick).22,23
Amblyomma americanum (Lone Star tick) is named for the characteristic and easily
recognizable single white spot that occurs on the dorsal shield of the female
(Fig. 3). The males are also ornate but have several white to yellow lines on the
edge of their scutum instead of the single white spot (see Fig. 3). Amblyomma amer-
icanum have long palpi, a long hypostome, eye spots, and festoons.
The range of A americanum seems to be increasing across the southern plains and
Midwestern and eastern states. It was once considered to occur primarily in the south,
with southern New Jersey being its northernmost range; its geographic range has
since expanded.27Focal populations now occur in many northern states, including
Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York.27,28The
range of distribution extends south into Florida, west to Texas, and north through
eastern Oklahoma and Kansas to Michigan.27
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