YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Fleas Wake Up Hungry : Pests: Late spring rains have brought dormant eggs to life. Experts predict an explosion in numbers of the high-jumping, blood-sucking insects.


Awakening like a hibernating bear, the common flea is coming to life again after its long winter slumber, and it's hungry for blood.

Warmer temperatures and increased humidity are pumping life into dormant flea eggs, which have hidden all winter in yards, beneath rosebushes and in sidewalk cracks, and experts say this year will be a fierce season of flea fighting.

"With all the late rains, you can bet we'll see a lot of fleas this year. Now is the time to start treating your house, your yard and your pet," said Larry Day of the Grand Avenue Pet Hospital in Santa Ana.

Fleas reproduce best in warm, damp environments. By late spring and early summer, there is literally a population explosion of the pests.

Throughout Orange County, pet stores have reported increased flea product sales, pet hospitals are treating higher numbers of cats and dogs with skin irritations caused by fleas bites and pest-control companies are busy making house calls.

Every year, Americans spend nearly $1 billion on flea control and prevention, according to Miles Inc. of Kansas City, a maker of flea-control products.

Although the flea season peaks in midsummer, now is a good time to commence the battle against the high-stepping, blood-sucking insect, Day said, because early action prevents flea infestation later.

"You have to start using sprays on the yard as well as inside the house. One flea becomes a thousand fleas real quick," Day said.

What makes the war against fleas particularly challenging is their four-stage breeding cycle.

A female flea lays about 50 eggs every day. The eggs, which resemble grains of salt, are resistant to pesticides. A small larvae hatches from an egg and spins a silky web around itself in the pupal stage of development. Finally, an adult flea emerges.

From start to finish, reproduction takes two weeks in optimum weather. In cold temperatures, a flea egg remains dormant indefinitely until spurred by warm temperatures and humidity. The flea's average life span is about eight weeks.

So even if a dog or cat has been dipped in flea bath and the house has been fogged, eggs in the carpet will often hatch another batch. Eliminating them requires patience and persistence, Day said.

Fleas live off a steady diet of blood from mammals and birds. Incredibly strong for its minute size, the common flea--the size of the ball in a ballpoint pen--can jump 13 inches. The wingless insect, which moves easily between animals, punctures the skin with its sharp beak and sucks blood.

Since almost the beginning of time, fleas have hopped on Earth. In the frozen tundra and in archeological digs around the world, ancient flea remnants have been discovered, according to Rick Henderson of Fleabusters in Santa Ana.

In the 14th Century, fleas played a role in the death of nearly a third of Europe when the bubonic plague spread across the continent. Fleas passed on the disease, also known as the Black Death, to humans after sucking infected blood from rodents.

Today, fleas still pose a health risk, said Dr. James Webb of the Orange County Vector Control District.

Fleas can carry murine typhus, a debilitating disease that causes severe flu-like symptoms, Webb said. The disease, which is most common among the homeless, is spread to people by fleas that have bitten opossums, he said.

Pets, however, suffer the greatest harm from fleas. The insects carry dog and cat tapeworms that infest the animals' intestines. In addition, many dogs and cats suffer allergic reactions to flea bites, often leading to severe skin irritations and sores.

For instance, a dog with sensitive skin could suffer incessant itching and irritation from just a single bite, said veterinarian Steve Kubelun from Woodbridge Animal Hospital in Irvine.

Pets aggravate their suffering with endless scratching that causes soreness or lesions that require medical treatment, Kubelun said.

The itching can also affect a pet's attitude as well. Covered with burning bumps and new bite marks every few minutes, the family dog can become irascible.

"I've noticed a change in my two dogs in the last few weeks," said A.J. Floyd of Westminster, who owns a German shepherd and an Akita.

"I woke up to the sound of scratching this morning," Floyd said. "When I looked up at my German shepherd, I could tell that he was really annoyed."

Biting Time In Orange County, the recent combination of damp weather and humid days has created a breeding ground for fleas. These wingless, bloodsucking insects live on mammals and birds, often causing discomfort for both pets and owners.

Health Hazards The red, itchy welts fleas leave on pets can cause allergic reactions or tapeworms. Watch for these symptoms: Excessive scratching and fur loss. Changes in eating habits; loose stools. Fighting Infestation To battle a flea colony, attack where they live, namely in carpets and wherevr pets sleep. Wash pet bedding frequently Vacuum often Keep pets off upholsterd furniture Choose aerosols or foggers and outdoor treatment that kill eggs as well as adult fleas Bathe and dip pet regularly; treat pets with flea powder Add 1 1/2 teaspoon brewer's yeast to pet food; it gives pet an ordor that repels fleas but isn't detectable to pet owners. Sources: Western Exterminator Co., World Book Encyclopedia; Researched by APRIL JACKSON / Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times Articles