A flea in one’s ear and a ticking off!

A close-up photo shows an adult flea.

FLEAS and ticks have more than left their marks upon humans, birds and animals. We may see dogs and cats scratching, as, indeed, we ourselves do, when bitten by these creatures. Holly, my dog, certainly picks up fleas and ticks when on summertime walks with me in the meadows surrounding my house. Daily I inspect her for both parasites and remove them from her underbelly and ears where hair is less obvious.

I use a well-tested method to catch them in using a paper towel soaked in surgical spirit, which I dab on a running flea or a tick’s body. The surgical spirit temporarily paralyses the flea so that I can catch it with my fingers and then, using my nails, squash it.

The absorption of the surgical spirit forces the tick to release its claws, which are embodied in my dog’s skin, and the whole tick can be easily and painlessly removed. Again my fingernails provide the final solution.

In Kuching, when I see stray cats and dogs scratching their coats, I am tempted to give them a spray of surgical spirit but I fear being bitten or scratched myself.

Whether in temperate or tropical climates, we all tend to give our domestic animals the same creature comforts we afford ourselves in terms of central heating or air conditioning.

Fleas can readily hop onto us and lay eggs in our rugs, carpets and furniture. Regular spraying of such luxuries with an approved pesticide will control flea outbreaks, especially in hot weather. A special, synthetic dog collar, which I obtained from my local vets’ practice, has kept her clear of fleas and ticks in the height of this summer.

Fleas

About 1.5 to three millimetres long, fleas are agile insects with generally dark to reddish brown colouration. With compressed bodies, they are able to scurry easily through hairs and feathers. Look amongst animal hairs for signs of their black droppings (disgorged blood) and nearby you will see a flea.

Having caught the flea, then look for their tiny white eggs embodied in the animal hairs. It is worth remembering that flea populations on animals and humans consist of about 50 per cent eggs, 35 per cent larvae, 10 per cent pupae and 5 per cent adults.

The red bite marks we see on skin are the result of a flea’s proboscis piercing the epidermis and then drawing out blood from its victim. This feature led to their zoological nomenclature as of the order Siphonaptera – literally meaning siphon and wingless.

Nearly 3,000 different species of flea have been identified worldwide. Relative to their bodyweight and size, they may be considered as one of the best high and long jumpers on our planet, reaching 18 centimetres vertically and 33 centimetres laterally.

Reproduction rates

Female fleas lay at least 5,000 eggs in their lifetime of normally between two and three months. In high temperatures of between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius and high humidity, plus a plentiful supply of human and animal blood, adult fleas can live for up to 18 months.

Carriers of disease

Flea bites may also be observed on wild birds and domestic fowls such as chickens. Their presence on avian species may be seen by the constant pecking of birds under their wings and chests and their claws constantly scratching their bodies to create bald patches. One old wives’ tale exists in the UK and I’m endeared to this; bald men, it is alleged, have lost their hair through scratching their head to rid themselves of fleas! May I assure readers that my hair loss was not due to this!

Hedgehogs are notorious carriers of fleas. I have actually observed them crawling with fleas. My dog loves sniffing, at night, the hedgehog trails in my garden and she freezes when she sees one. So it is a matter of swings and roundabouts, my hedgehogs have rid my garden this year of slugs and snails and my dog has captured the fleas.

The list of diseases, either in bacterial, rickettsial or viral forms that the flea vector transmits is nigh endless. The Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) hosting on the black rat (Rattus rattus) carried and then transmitted the bubonic plague, which hit the Middle East and Europe as the pandemic, ‘Black Death’, between the years 1346 and 1353. A third of Europe’s population was wiped out in just seven years. In the 20th century, in an attempt to cull the wild rabbit population in the United Kingdom, the virus disease myxomatosis was injected into these mammals and hence these herbivores, because of their attraction to fleas, allowed the latter to pass on this virus from one rabbit warren to another.

A tick is seen gorging on a human victim.

Ticks

With increasingly mild winters and warm and wet spring times and summers, the UK’s tick population is ever increasing. Ticks belong to one of two families – the hard ticks (Ixodidae) and soft ticks (Argasidae) – both of which are found worldwide.

Their pear-shaped bodies, full of their host’s blood, and eight legs, are easily identified. Like fleas, they have been on Earth since Cretaceous times for over 100 million years with fossilised forms found in amber in Myanmar.

These insects detect bodily odour and breath. Clinging precariously to grasses and leaves they, not unlike leeches, await to cling onto any passing mammal and then engorge themselves on blood.

Where I live, in South West England, this region of the UK is classified as ‘a high risk area’ for collecting a tick and the insidious Lyme disease.

Researchers at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute have suggested that global warming will lengthen the time for which ticks are dangerously active. Such months annually are now between July and September.

This is why I inspect my dog and my own arms and legs after a walk in recently sheep-grazed fields, to spot and remove sheep ticks (Ixodes ricinus).

Leech-like bloodsuckers

With eight legs, each with a set of claws, their mouthparts, on the Ixodidae species, pierce the skin of animals, birds and humans, and then draw their blood.

Their innate ability is to attach themselves, for days or weeks, to creatures without any pain felt by their host.

Some species attach themselves especially to animal ears but all species emit, upon their bite, an anticoagulant (like the leech) so that they may endlessly gorge away. Thus, they may increase their bodily weight by nearly 600 per cent!

Tick-borne diseases

Much the same as with fleas, these diseases are transmitted by human, animal and bird vectors. Some species of tick may transmit typhus whilst others, in Europe, may carry Lyme disease, a bacterium (Borrelia burgdorferi).

Treated quickly with antibodies, it is soon remedied. In France, there has been a threefold increase in reported cases of Lyme disease from 2007 to an all-time high in 2016 of 30,000 cases.

Do not despair!

Remember that fleas and ticks are not confined to rural environments but also exist in urban gardens and parks.

When gardening, wear long pants and long sleeved shirts and even spray your clothing with suitable insecticides, for our body odours and breath not only attract mosquitoes.

Inspect your cats and dogs regularly and remove fleas and ticks as soon as possible.

A good dose of disinfectant on patios and backyards, where feral or stray cats may slumber, will certainly put our minds at rest and keep our pets in good shape as well as ourselves.

A cat scratches itself to try to get rid of possible fleas or ticks.

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