Reviewed and updated for accuracy on November 4, 2019 by Dr. Hanie Elfenbein, DVM, PhD
Think fleas are just a warm-weather hazard? Not quite.
Though not as prolific during the winter, external parasites like fleas pose a risk to you and your petâ€™s health during every season.
Hereâ€™s why proper flea and tick prevention must be a year-round priority.
Adult Fleas Are a Small Part of the Flea Life Cycle
Fleas donâ€™t travel from place to place in search of a host. Theyâ€™re opportunists who find a host, then hold on as long as possible. But itâ€™s not just the adult fleas you have to worry about.
After biting, female fleas will feed on your petâ€™s blood (unless something disturbs them), mate and start laying eggs within 24 to 36 hours, explains Dr. Jason Drake, a board-certified veterinary parasitologist with Elanco Animal Health.
â€śOne female can lay up to 50 eggs per day for more than three months,â€ť Dr. Drake says. â€śThese eggs are laid on the pet, then fall off into the environment, accumulating in the largest numbers wherever the infested pet spends the most time, such as on bedding or on furniture.â€ť
Flea larvae, which resemble maggots, hatch and feed on semi-digested blood thatâ€™s present in adult flea feces. They then form a cocoon and pupate in the environment. â€śWithin the cocoon, the flea larva undergoes metamorphosis and eventually emerges from the cocoon as an adult flea.â€ť
Adult fleas emerge from their cocoons when stimulated by vibration, pressure or carbon dioxide emitted from breath, and when temperatures can sustain their survival, says Dr. Drake.
The life cycle then begins again anew.
Can Fleas Survive During the Winter?
â€śFleas thrive around 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and itâ€™s around this temperature when they complete their entire life cycle within just a few weeks,â€ť Dr. Drake says.
One adult flea can lay many eggs in this short time. But cold temperatures donâ€™t kill flea eggsâ€”they just slow down the life cycle. Fleas can hatch all through the winter.
What about fleas that are in the pupae stage, waiting inside cocoons?
â€śThey can stay within the cocoon up to 30 weeks at 51.8 degrees Fahrenheit,â€ť?says Dr. Drake.
The most common flea species, Ctenocephalides felis, typically overwinters on hosts or in protected areas (carpet, bedding, etc.), provided temperatures are mild.
â€śNo life stage of the flea (egg, larvae, pupae or adult) can survive near-freezing temperatures for very long,â€ť Dr. Drake says. But that doesnâ€™t mean that your pet is safe from fleas.
Adult fleas can be found on pets and wildlife throughout the winter. â€śProtected areasâ€”such as areas under homes, barns and wildlife densâ€”can stay warm and humid enough to support flea infestations through the winter,â€ť he says.
â€śAs temperatures rise in the spring, immature stages of fleas are able to survive in the environment, allowing for adult flea populations to rapidly increase,â€ť explains Dr. Drake.
Do I Need to Treat My Pet for Fleas in the Winter?
The short answer is yes. Failing to protect your pet from fleas during winter can be costly to her health. Flea infestations lead to scratching, itching, skin irritations and infections.
By skipping winter flea treatments, you also put your home and yard at risk for developing a flea infestation once warmer weather returns. Flea infestations are difficult to treat and can be very costly.
Keep your petâ€™s area clean by vacuuming carpets and washing bedding in hot water to kill fleas. Prevention is the real key to reducing your petâ€™s risk of exposure to fleas.
Thatâ€™s why choosing a reliable preventive product is critical. â€śBecause of the large numbers of eggs fleas can lay, it is important to use tick and flea products year-round in order to stop fleas before they establish infestations,â€ť Dr. Drake says.
He explains, â€śFast-acting products that kill ticks and fleas quickly are important to help prevent eggs from being produced and to reduce the amount of time ticks and fleas can transmit diseases.â€ť
Talk with your veterinarian to figure out the best year-round flea prevention strategy and product for your pet.
By Paula Fitzsimmons
Featured Image: iStock.com/Krisztian Juhasz