I like bugs—just as well in my line of work, but I don’t like fleas. The very thought of them, crawling on my body and feasting on my blood itching all over. I bet you are itching just reading this. Well relax, we are lucky enough to live in one of the few places on Earth where fleas do not- the flea-free Falklands!
To say the Falklands are flea free is not strictly true. There are at least four species of flea here and if anybody was to look hard enough it’s likely that more would be discovered, however the Falklands are free from the species of flea which cause us and our pets most problems Ctenocephalides felis—the cat flea, which contrary to it’s name is often found on dogs too.
There are an estimated 2500 species of flea in the world and they are found on many hosts including cats and dogs, rats, people and birds. Fleas are generally host specific and so while people may get bitten by cat fleas, they prefer to live on cats and dogs rather than on humans.
What exactly are fleas?
Fleas are wingless insects with specially adapted hind legs which allow them to jump great distances. If humans had the jumping ability of a flea we would be able to jump 90 metres in a single leap.
Fleas reproduce rapidly. Eggs are laid on the host animal however they do not get stuck in the hosts animal’s fur and fall off into the bedding where the emerging larvae will feed on flea faeces, dead skin and other organic debris—flea larvae do not feed on blood, as at this stage they are not equipped with the specialised piercing mouthparts.
The larvae grow rapidly and will moult three times before turning into a pupae. Adult fleas emerge from the pupae in response to heat, carbon dioxide (breath) and movement—allowing them to time their emergence with a passing animal, and potential new host.
The flea’s lifecycle enables it to survive for long periods in the absence of a host. Unluckily for us that also means that they are able to survive the trip to the Falklands. For this reason the import of animal beds, blankets or vehicles and mobile homes, pose a significant risk to our biosecurity.
So what’s the big deal?
You may be thinking that the introduction of fleas to the Falklands wouldn’t be a big deal. However, it might be a bigger deal than you imagine.
Flea infestations and flea related conditions make up a significant proportion of the workload of veterinary practices in countries where fleas are present, and so if they were introduced here would add to the workload of our vets and cost pet owners money in associated veterinary care and home treatment.
Fleas – A Vet’s Perspective
For most dogs and cats outside of the Falklands, fleas are considerably more than just a blood-feeding parasite. For in addition to blood loss through bites (which can be significant in heavy infestations of juveniles), they can also transmit tapeworms and more significantly, cause the dermatosis known as Flea Allergic Dermatitis (FAD). Dogs have the most sensitive skin of any domestic species (even more so than humans), and often succumb to this condition which can cause severe pruritus (itchiness), alopecia (hair loss), and secondary pyoderma (bacterial skin infection) which then exacerbates the condition. In fact up to 90% of skin disease in dogs relates to fleas in some way or another.
The most common flea affecting dogs and cats is Ctenocephalides felis (the cat flea) and the majority of pet owners in flea zones (which include most of the earth’s landmasses) must use prophylactic treatments to keep fleas under control. These are either oral medications or ‘spot-on’ preparations which are absorbed through the skin and for most animals will cost between £6 and £12 per month. Additionally, infested animals will need their home environment to be treated with a flea spray to kill larval stages of the fleas, which will cost around £20. Additionally, the skin of a sensitive patient will also need treatment, often with antibiotics and anti-pruritics, all at considerable cost and commitment from the owner.
– Aniket Sardana
Fleas and Disease
The nature by which fleas feed means that they can spread bacteria and diseases to their hosts. This is particularly the case for rat fleas— most famously was bubonic plague, which before the discovery of antibiotics killed 200 million people across the globe—more than all the wars in history. Another disease is murine typhus which is caused by a bacterium transferred by the flea from rat infested areas, both murine typhus and bubonic plague respond well to antibiotics.
We have had some near misses!
Towards the end of last year an imported car was fumigated for a flea infestation following a routine biosecurity inspection; a near miss for the introduction of fleas to the Falklands. Then, just a few days before Christmas, Claudia found a flea on a cat. She managed to catch it (no mean feat) and so we were able to take a closer look under the microscope. It was an anxious few hours of studying the flea and consulting with experts at Fera in the UK but finally we deduced that it wasn’t the dreaded cat flea but likely to be a rat flea. Rat fleas do not infest cats but occasionally hitch a ride on one.
What can we do?
Imported pets undergo precautionary flea treatments and veterinary examinations prior to departure and again on arrival to the Falklands, however the risk lies with other imports.
- Don’t import used animal beds or blankets.
- Ensure that vehicles are thoroughly cleaned and free from fleas and pet hair.
- If in doubt contact the DoA for advice.
Keep the Flea-Free Falklands – Flea Free!