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Consider Fleas, Please: Things that bite in the night II

Dog flea, Ctenocephalides canis, and cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis. They can cause more problems than the entire spider combined. Last week we had a discussion



Dog flea, Ctenocephalides canis, and cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis. They can cause more problems than the entire spider combined. Last week we had a discussion regarding how brown recluse and spiders are made scapegoats for misdiagnosed human ailments. This is a timely topic because of the recent misinformation published in newspapers and an extreme email circulating that purports to show the thumb of a man that was allegedly bitten by a brown recluse.

What the medical community and pet-owners have apparently overlooked as the culprit, and should be looking at, is the tiny flea - that enigmatic little beast that has been living with and on Man ever since we walked out of our caves into the sunlight.

Fleas, Oh Best Beloved, pose the greater threat to your welfare than spiders. All you have to do is review the world history classes you took (or are taking) as to the role of fleas in the occurrence of the Black Death that wiped out an estimated 75 million people worldwide.

The story in the Bulletin that I referred to last week mentioned that a Terrebonne woman and her son had allegedly been "bitten by hobo spiders." The woman was said to have several pets and she allegedly suffered lesions on her waist. What do you know about that... Sound familiar to you pet-owners? Could fleas have caused all those damages to her body? And not the much-aligned spiders she was so alarmed about? I wonder...

If you have dogs or cats, you'll want to know more about the fleas that might latch onto them, becuase such an association is virtually unavoidable.

Fleas are tiny (2-8 mm) highly specialized bloodsucking parasites in the Order of insects called Siphonaptera, which means "wingless siphon." They are formidable bloodsuckers and the diseases they transmit have claimed more victims than all the wars ever fought. Thankfully, today most fleas are better known for their irritation and pest status worldwide. Nevertheless, the plague flea still persists and is found on our beloved golden mantle ground squirrels and other rodents in Oregon.

Dog and cat fleas are light brown to mahogany in color and roughly oval shaped. Their bodies are flattened which enables them to quickly move through the host's hair. The small head is equipped with sawing and sucking mouthparts, and two tiny simple eyes. To aid in finding a host, they possess two short antennae on the head that are sensitive to heat, vibration, traces of carbon dioxide, change in air currents and shadows. If you have ever seen a "flea circus", you know they can leap great distances. The better to hop on you, my dear...

Both female and male fleas rely on blood for their nutrition, AND they can survive for several months without feeding. (Over 200 days - ever wonder why they're so tough to kill?) When a flea feeds, it penetrates the host's tissue and injects a small amount of anti-coagulant to permit easy siphoning of the blood. And, right at that moment, all your suffering begins.

Fleas in general can (and will!) attack a range of hosts, and their ability to transfer from one host to another - as in cat to dog to human and visa-versa - allows for transfer of a wide range of pathogens including viral, bacterial and parasitic diseases.

The main flea species that attack humans are cat fleas, dog fleas, and human flea Pulex irritans. The latter two fleas are relatively rare in today's society, but common cat fleas are found on both cats and dogs, and are usually the tiny beast responsible for attacks on humans and flea plagues.

Cat fleas play host to the dog tapeworm, Dipylidium caninum. Thankfully, the parasitic worm can only infect a pet or person if they swallow the flea.

And then there are the much-maligned scorpions that I do not have room to discuss. Suffice to say there is not one living in Central Oregon that can kill you.

So, if you wake in the night with a mysterious welt on your waist, backside, or an itch behind your ear, and your cat is sleeping at the foot of the bed - don't jump to conclusions if you find a spider in the bathroom. And if someone cryptically waves their hand and says, "Oh, horrors, that's a spider bite," you'd best be sure the diagnosis is correct.

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