If you’ve ever dealt with a flea infestation, you know that these tiny bugs can become a major problem fast.
In the United States alone, experts estimate that pet parents spend a whopping $2.8 billion on flea-related veterinarian bills and another $5.6 billion on flea treatments .
Not only can fleas make your pet unbearably itchy, but in worst-case scenarios, they may also cause life-threatening cases of anemia in kittens and puppies, pass on a harmful parasite known as tapeworm, and even spread disease to pet parents, says Dr. Michael Dryden, a.k.a. “Dr. Flea,” who recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
As these little blood-suckers hop onto your dog or cat, rapidly reproduce, and proceed to invade the rest of your home from your carpets to your couch, you might find yourself wondering: Wait, can fleas fly? And if not, how far can a flea jump?
Read on for the answers, plus how to best protect your pet from fleas, with expert insight from veterinary parasitologists.
Can Fleas Fly?
First thing’s first: Do fleas fly or jump? “Luckily, fleas cannot fly,” says Dr. Heather Stockdale Walden, an assistant professor of parasitology at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. Rather, fleas fling themselves onto moving targets by leaping off of the ground.
It would be easy to assume fleas might be able to fly considering just how high and far they can jump, though. These tiny bugs are considered some of the best jumpers of all known animals in the world. In fact, their jumping skills are so impressive that some engineers have attempted to imitate them in the form of miniature leaping robots, per an article in the Journal of Biomechanical Science and Engineering.
So, what gives fleas such an amazing talent for jumping? It’s all thanks to a catapult-like mechanism built into their tiny bodies.
Understanding Flea Anatomy
A quick lesson in flea anatomy: Because fleas aren’t flyers, it should come as no surprise that they have no wings.
So, how many legs do fleas have? Three, and their hindlegs do most of the jumping, says Walden. However, these tiny bugs don’t jump by simply contracting their muscles.
“The length of a flea’s jump is not possible with muscle action,” says Dryden. “Rather, they compress their hindlegs into a natural rubber-like pad made of a protein called resilin and, like a tensed spring, release the pad to catapult themselves into the air.”
In this sense, fleas’ tiny feet act like triggers to release the energy that powers a flea’s high-flying jump. Fun fact: After a flea’s catapult mechanism goes off, the tiny bug tumbles rapidly through the air, as if it’s falling head over heels, says Dryden.
How High Can Fleas Jump?
Although some species of fleas can leap even higher, cat fleas (or the type of flea that typically affects dogs and cats worldwide) can jump about 19 inches or 48 centimeters in length, according to a study in Veterinary Parasitology.
Experts estimate fleas can jump about 150 to 200 times their own body length. To put this into perspective, a 7’3” person endowed with the same jumping capabilities would be able to jump over the tip of the Empire State Building .
Naturally, fleas’ ability to jump so high is a concern for pet parents, whether you’ve seen jumpers in the grass in your backyard or other pups scratching themselves at your local dog park. Chances are, though, your pet will pick up fleas from their environment rather than another pup.
How Do Fleas Get on Pets?
“Jumping is the fastest and easiest way for fleas to get onto your pet,” says Walden. While it’s possible for your pet to pick up fleas from rubbing against another animal, most often newly-hatched fleas leap from the ground onto moving targets .
While fleas feed on a dog or cat, they produce lots of eggs—up to 40 to 50 per day. As your pet scratches at them and shakes them off, they distribute the eggs throughout your home and yard. “Think of a flea-infested pet as a living salt-shaker,” says Dryden.
Wherever flea eggs land, they develop into larvae which over time grow into adult fleas encased within a cocoon. When the flea detects a potential host from cues like vibrations on the ground, air currents, and heat nearby, it emerges to look for a host .
Once hatched, fleas are attracted to the light and turn towards it in order to wait for something to pass by. Whether the shadow is cast by a cat, dog, human, or something else, that’s an indicator to a flea that it’s time to jump in the hopes of landing on a new host.
After they’ve latched onto your pet, it only takes fleas about 24 hours to begin laying eggs again. They do this by consuming 140 percent of their body weight in blood. “Fleas are not just a nuisance—they are voracious blood-suckers,” says Dr. Dryden.
As frustrating and invasive as fleas can be, there are a few simple ways you can keep your pet safe.
Protecting Your Pet Against Fleas
Because fleas reproduce and spread so rapidly, the best way to keep your pet flea-free is to never allow these tiny parasites to get that far, says Dryden. The fix is simple: Ask your veterinarian for a prescription for an effective flea preventative product and give it to your pet regularly, he says.
If you already have a flea problem, again, you’ll want to visit your veterinarian first to determine the right course of treatment for your pet. After that, take additional measures to clear your home of flea eggs as well, says Walden.
Here’s what to do:
- Thoroughly vacuum your home with a focus on your pets’ favorite spots
- Wash pet bedding and blankets
- Limit visitors like other cats and dogs to your home
Finally, if you’re considering giving your pet a flea bath, skip it—most over-the-counter products don’t work fast enough to successfully combat flea infestations these days, as they’ve built up a resistance to them, says Dryden.
Keeping your pet on flea prevention and thoroughly cleaning your home and yard is the best method for protecting your pet from these jumping parasites.