Spreading disease from one mammal to another

Fleas are insects from the order of Siphonaptera which can be translated to “wingless sucking tubes”. Fleas have a very bad reputation for being the main culprit in spreading the bubonic plague or the Black Death. Fortunately for us, the flea species behind it, the Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) is very rare today but the disease is still known to occur in some parts of the world. When we talk about plague in Australia, the disease hit Sydney in 1900 and caused 300 deaths in 8 months. There was a bounty (approximately $4) for each rat and in only ten months over 100,000 rats were killed. History books record twelve plague outbreaks in Australia from 1900 to 1925 and 535 deaths. Luckily for us, we are rather safe from plague today but the disease can still be found in Africa, Asia and South America.

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Flea characteristics

Fleas are very small insects without wings and their size ranges from 1 to 10 mm. They can be easily recognised by having the following characteristics:

  • Very compressed body
  • Enlarged hind legs that allow them to jump over long distances
  • Piercing mouthparts for sucking
  • Very strong tarsal claws which are used to grasp onto the host
  • Rear pointing hairs that allow them to move easily through hair or fur of their host.

Fleas do not have any mandibulate mouthparts which mean that they don’t bite. So, if someone tells you that he was bitten by a flea, you can tell them how wrong they are.

fleas pest Sydney

fleas pest closeup

Biology and identification

The main flea species in Australia are:

  • The introduced cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis)
  • The introduced dog flea (Ctenocephalides canis)

According to researchers, the Human flea (Pulex irritans) is rather rare. For people with little experience, it can be almost impossible to distinguish different species but it is not so much important because the treatment for most fleas is the same.

Adult, fully grown fleas, mate on their host and the non-adhesive eggs fall to the ground. After a female flea has a blood meal, she can lay between 15 and 20 eggs per day and over 600 during her lifetime. Eggs hatch between two days and two weeks into larvae which can end up anywhere indoors, under boards, rugs and even on furniture and beds. Outdoor areas can also be home to flea larvae and places such as sub-floors and grassy areas are most common. These larvae are completely blind and do not have legs. They can remain in this stage a week or in some cases months, depending on the temperature and the available food. Larvae do not feed with blood like adults but feed on disgorged blood left by them as well as other organic debris such as dead skin, hair and feathers. The adult fleas will emerge from their pupal case from 5 to 14 days but they can remain in their cocoon for longer periods. These periods may end if they detect some external stimulation such as vibration, heat, noise or CO2. These outside stimuli are an indication that there is a potential host nearby. After they emerge from the cocoon, adult fleas will not be able to survive or lay eggs before having a blood meal. They can survive without a meal for about 7 days. If only a dozen fleas are left for 30 days in ideal conditions, they can produce 250,000 fleas of different stages. A typical flea population is made of 50% eggs, 35% larvae, 10% pupae and only 5% adult fleas.

fleas pest Sydney

flea on human skin

fleas pest Sydney

fleas live on pets


Why are they pests?

Why do we consider fleas to be pests? If it were for only one reason but no, they are many. Luckily for us, plague is not one of them. Pet owners spend large amounts of money on keeping fleas away from their cats and dogs. Fleas can cause dermatitis on both cats and dogs and can even transmit tapeworms. For us, they are simply the cause of irritation on the skin but children can develop tapeworm infestation if they accidentally eat fleas. Some people can even have a severe reaction with accompanying secondary infections from scratching while some show no reaction at all. Most flea “bites” are located on the ankles or legs and the irritation can last from minutes to even days in some cases. The easiest way to notice a flea bite is to see a small and red swollen spot that itches. The Oriental rat fleas can spread typhus fever in rats and from rats to humans. They are also able to spread bubonic plague from rodent to rodent and afterward from rodents to people.


Where can we find them?

Where can fleas be found? Well, almost everywhere where there are cats or dogs. However, in some occasions there are no animals on the site but they still may be on elevated properties. Anywhere where there are cats or dogs, fleas can be found in places where these animals spend most of their time. If you have a cat that likes to spend her time on your window, that is the place where the flea eggs will accumulate and grow into larvae and adult fleas. Some pest controllers call these places hot spots.

On the outside, fleas can be located in areas that are protected from direct sunlight, such as the shady areas behind your garage or in your sub-floor. Everywhere where there are cats or dogs that are not treated for fleas, there will be fleas. Fleas are very active during the warm part of the year because their optimum temperature is between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius while humidity needs to be around 70 percent.


Integrated Pest Management

When your client calls and says that they have fleas, it is time for you to think about IPM ”“ an Integrated Pest Management approach. Without it, your chances that the client will be satisfied after your work will be much lower. Nobody wants to live in a house that is filled with fleas.

A successful flea treatment consists of three essential and simultaneous steps:

  • Pet treatment
  • Premises cleaning
  • Insecticide application

First step is a detailed and thorough property inspection. This can seem unimportant to some but some property owners might not even have fleas at all, so we need to be certain that they do before proceeding. In severe infestation cases, inspection will not be necessary as fleas will be even on the front gates to say hello when you arrive. Just a quick check of the house is in most cases enough to reveal flea presence, especially if you have white socks over your shoes. Make sure to check all hot spots and concentrate your chemicals there. Also, make sure that your client has his animals treated before you start your work. Slow, thorough vacuuming and/or steam cleaning of all floor surfaces should be done before spraying. Vacuum cleaning will clear all flea eggs as well as all other flea life cycles. However, this will clear only 20% of larvae as they tend to grab onto carpet fibres. Larvae spend most of the time at the base of the carpet but during pupation, they climb higher on the carpet fibres. Vacuum cleaning will also clear dried blood faeces which is a major food source for larvae. Everything should be picked up from all floors and you should focus your attention to places where pet hair can accumulate. The vacuum bag must be thrown into the garbage and pet bedding needs to be washed and cleaned. Outside, grass must be mown so the treatment can be applied more thoroughly. Soil areas need to be dampened so insecticide can penetrate beneath. Make sure you read the insecticide labels carefully so you can ensure to follow all recommendations before doing anything.


Control measures

Interior treatment

When you are about to start with treating the interior, make sure that all your equipment is clean and that no dirt is present on your shoes. This way you can avoid soiling the carpets which can be moist after the insecticide application. You can try wearing shoe covers and you can even use a standard air sprayer with an extension wand. Using a flat fan nozzle will give much better spraying pattern than the hollow cone nozzle which is the typical nozzle for most pest controllers. When it comes to choosing the insecticide, there is a large number of products that are good at their job. A nice addition is an Insect Growth Regulator which can prolong the control for months. There are a few of these on the market and most of them can be used for flea treatment. All formulations should be mixed according to their label requirements. Treatment should start at the furthest point and from there you should start moving to your exit. The most frequent mistake that pest controllers can do is to apply their insecticide very lightly so it does not penetrate all the way to the carpet base where the larvae live. Always pay attention for hot spots that you identified previously and use insecticide dust on wooden floors. Insecticide dust is dusted on the floor and then blown into areas where flea larvae have been found. After applying the treatment, the homeowner should not enter until all floors are completely dry and this usually takes around 2 to 4 hours depending on the weather and temperature conditions. You should be informed that flea activity will be present for two weeks as adult fleas need to emerge from their pupal cases before they come in contact with the insecticide. You should not vacuum your home during the first 10 days.

Exterior treatment

The difference between treatment of the interior and exterior is the fact that the air sprayer is inadequate. A trolley sprayer or pump should be used for exterior treatment and dry soil needs to be moist before applying the insecticide. For exterior treatment most pest controllers use a different, more economical, insecticide. The grass needs to be mown as it will benefit the insecticide penetration. Some pest controllers offer a “free service period” but these can be tricky when it comes to fleas. Most pest controllers offer 3-month warranty for households and 1-month for animal pounds and veterinary offices but most pest controllers do not offer any “free service periods” for flea treatment.

Bird mites

One other pest species that causes problems to us is the bird mite. It can be almost impossible to stay in the place that has a bird mite infestation. Bird mite treatments are easy as long as you know how to climb the ladder and do not have a fear of heights.


Bird mites are not insects as most people think. The most common mite associated with bird nests is the Startling mite (Ornithonyssus bursa) from the family Macronyssidae but in most cases, the culprits are the Northern fowl mite (Ornithonyssus sylviarum) or the chicken mite (Dermanyssus gallinae). Sometimes, the Tropical rat mite (Ornithonyssus bacoti) is associated with rats. It is very important to make a correct identification of the involved species. Ornithonyssus bursa is a very small mite and it is difficult to see him with a bare eye. It has an oval shape and is covered with short hairs. It is a parasite who feeds with the blood of exotic birds, chickens and some native Australian species. A hungry mite is completely transparent but after feeding they turn red or purple in colour. They can move very quickly when they leave their nest and you can sometimes see hundreds or thousands as they swarm down the wall in their search for a meal. They are most common in spring and summer when birds enter their breeding period. Their life cycle is around one week.

fleas pest Sydney

flea colony

fleas pest Sydney

fleas spread via birds too

Why are bird mites pests?

Luckily for us, bird mites are not disease carriers and they are considered as pests mostly because they like to bite people. Same as fleas, bird mites inject saliva which helps them during their feeding process. Saliva is the one that causes severe irritation and itching that are accompanied by rashes. The hot spots for bird mites are those in vicinity of bird nests. Our blood is not good enough for them and they will usually die within 20 days but sometimes other may emerge in their place.

Where can bird mites be found?

Bird mites can be found basically everywhere where birds make their nests. Pigeons are the most common bird mite carriers while starlings are the most usual culprit for domestic infestations. The birds can make their nests in roof voids and building occupants might not even be able to see the nests.

How do we treat them?

The treatment depends solely on the ease of access to the bird nests. It can be relatively easy to remove nests in a single storey dwelling. Nests are removed and entry points sealed off. However, pest controllers need to consider their equipment and price calculations when it comes to higher areas. First thing to do is to locate the nests and this can be a lot easier from the outside of the house. When you have successfully located the nest, apply insecticide and remove all nesting material in a bag that you will later dispose. After that, you need to decide how to block access to prevent birds from re-entering the site. This might require you to re-cement roof tiles or seal holes with chicken wire. Commercial premises will usually be a much more difficult job and you might even require professional assistance. Once you remove all of the nests and seal every access point, you need to find your way to the roof void and spread insecticidal dust to the area. Be thorough and make sure that the dust covers all corners. In situations where infestation is evident to the interior (wall vents, windows, wall cracks etc.) you will need to spray it with insecticide. Make sure that your insecticide will not affect the surfaces. You can do this by testing the insecticide in an obscure location of the wall. When we do our job well, we will not need to do a follow-up visit.

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Interesting facts about fleas

A human flea can jump 20 cm high and over 150 times its length. This is the equivalent of us jumping 440 metres! And when they jump, fleas reach a speed of 100 cm per second with an acceleration of 140G. This speed is 20 times the speed of an Apollo rocket. This acceleration is equal to what we would feel if we crashed our car into a wall while going 300 km per hour. One more interesting fact is that fleas for some reason like women more than men.

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