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Have you got fleas?

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Mark Easton | 08:17 UK time, Monday, 4 August 2008

Another mild, damp summer - just the weather for fleas. Last year the UK saw record numbers of "siphonaptera" according to environmental health officers and this year looks likely to see a similar story.

So, Map of the Week this week is actually four maps looking at the UK from the flea viewpoint.

Map showing recordings of fleas in Britain and Ireland

There are about 60 species of flea in Britain and thanks to the extraordinary life work of Bob George, a former RAF pilot and school teacher who began recording fleas in about 1950, naturalists now have a much more profound understanding of this wingless and largely friendless insect.

Bob initiated the national flea recording scheme in 1964 and so these maps reflect almost half a century of new data but also many historic records including those of the natural historian Miriam Rothschild.

According to Bob's "Atlas of the Fleas of Britain and Ireland", the human flea (Pulex irritans) is considered to be of New World origin. "It is possible that this species may have originated in South America, associated with guinea pigs", he writes. "Pulex irritans appears to have spread with humans around the world during the post-glacial period.

There is evidence of its presence at Viking settlements in Dublin and York."

The human flea is in decline apparently, a victim of the vacuum cleaner and insecticides.

The cat flea, however, seems in good health and is Britain's most common flea. Dog fleas are rarer and are almost unknown in Scotland. If a pooch has fleas north of the border, they are almost certainly cat fleas.

Our final map shows recordings of Brtain's rarest flea: the Manx shearwater flea. You will need to look closely for the only dot - in the Inner Hebrides off the West coast of Scotland. The Manx shearwater flea is only found at high altitudes (650 m and above) and has only been collected from shearwater nest burrows on the mountain of Hallival on Rum.

Fleas can jump up to 150 times the length of their bodies, equivalent to a person jumping about 300 metres. Their acceleration is equivalent to 50 times that of the space shuttle during lift off.

According to the Health Protection Agency, fleas are carriers of the cat and dog tapeworm, which may infect humans. Apart from this there is no disease transmitted by fleas in the UK (although they are still an important carrier of plague in many parts of the world).

If you are interested in the distribution of animals, birds and insects in the UK, go to the National Biodiversity Network Gateway where you can take advantage of a wealth of wildlife data to make your own maps. You could also get involved with adding dots to maps through involvement with a recording scheme - visit the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology Biological Records Centre to find out more.


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  • 1. At 09:25am on 04 Aug 2008, curlyscousedave wrote:

    Is it jus me, or is anybody else feeling irrationally itchy?

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  • 2. At 09:37am on 04 Aug 2008, stanilic wrote:

    The trouble with treating cat fleas is the tendency for the cat to flee when it sees you reach for the powder.

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  • 3. At 10:14am on 04 Aug 2008, MersonTuffers wrote:

    This explains a LOT!!! I have three cats who all have either flea collars or get sprayed and STILL I am picking the little blighters off them!!
    I have sprayed the house 3 times already - with spray that's supposed to last up to a year!
    I am obviously fighting a losing battle.....

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  • 4. At 10:24am on 04 Aug 2008, Caroline wrote:

    Argh! If record keeping started in 1964 that is NOT almost half a century thankyouverymuch.

    I was born in 1964 - I have six years, SIX! to go before that milestone

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  • 5. At 10:30am on 04 Aug 2008, Dunky_R wrote:

    What a good article and nice and accurate. I wonder if the cat flea distribution is not just related to the density of cats but of people as well? Dundee and Perth don't seem to appear but Aberdeen does. So does Inverness. Also looks like competitive exclusion by the Cat flea. Could you put up a map on the distribution of midges?

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  • 6. At 10:47am on 04 Aug 2008, Marmitebaby wrote:

    Do human fleas reproduce in May annually?
    How long do dog and cat fleas survive without a host?
    We definitley had an infestation this May and last May but not sure which type. Dog and cat died over 3 years ago. So how can we tell which type if all bite humans?

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  • 7. At 10:54am on 04 Aug 2008, Alan wrote:

    Slow news day?

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  • 8. At 11:24am on 04 Aug 2008, Jamie Taylor wrote:

    I echo #7 - is this the 'silly season' or what? Roll on Parliament reconvening...

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  • 9. At 11:45am on 04 Aug 2008, YoginiLondon wrote:

    I feel really itchy now!

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  • 10. At 12:19pm on 04 Aug 2008, JessicaCook wrote:

    I have two springers -of which the smaller of the two is having big problems with fleas. Showering in flea shampoo and boiling their bedding every couple of days doesn't seem to help much.
    Should I be using cat flea spray rather than the doggie stuff??
    Does anyone have any suggestions that may help my girls!!

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  • 11. At 12:25pm on 04 Aug 2008, NuclearChicken wrote:

    Will we be having more maps of parasite distribution tomorrow? How about a map of tick distribution?

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  • 12. At 12:26pm on 04 Aug 2008, virtualfang wrote:

    marmite baby We were always warned in the 60's that the best time for fleas is straight after a long dry spell followed with a couple of thundery days and the blighters emerge. my american vet tells me eggs when laid can last up to ten years before hatching when the conditions are right, so yes it is possible

    By the time you work out your cat has fleas because you have been bitten, then its too late the cycle has begun. Flea collars are no good, neither is wet spraying them with junk bought from supermatkets too weak to be effective.
    To help stanilic and tuffers ; get the Frontline ready, put down their food and applying it on the back of the necks whilst eating, a doddle.

    Alternatively put said puss cat in pillow case with neck and head out only, and slowly immerse in bath of warm water, pillow case stops the little brute clawing you to death and also lets water in to drown the fleas. Even our most water fearing cat prefered the drowning game to the constant biting and then you only lose an old pillow case not half your arm

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  • 13. At 12:26pm on 04 Aug 2008, NuclearChicken wrote:

    JessicaCook: I hear shaving is very effective.

    Seriously, the treatments should be equally effective. Try treating your carpets.

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  • 14. At 12:40pm on 04 Aug 2008, MersonTuffers wrote:

    Cheers for the pillowcase suggestion VirtualFang although I'd probably only get 2 out of 3 of the cats in the bath. My eldest (16) would probably have a heart attack so I won't try it on him.

    Already use Frontline but the downside is that the flea has to bite the animal for it to work. Have spent years trying to find something smelly enough to prevent the flea jumping on the cat in the first instance! No joy so far.... :-(

    And to those saying "oh, slow news day" - for some of us this has been informative so why not get off your high horses and into your deck chairs and chill out a bit.

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  • 15. At 12:54pm on 04 Aug 2008, JessicaCook wrote:

    Could part of the problem be that we have a family of hedgehogs living under the dogs shed?

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  • 16. At 1:16pm on 04 Aug 2008, stanilic wrote:

    Thanks for the advice virtualfang but I can't see either of ours falling for the pillow-case treatment.

    Sam loves a good brushing as he is now middle aged and relaxed about it. He is also semi-longhaired so he has got used to it.

    The other one, well, she might have the odd flea but also there's no flies on her!

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  • 17. At 1:38pm on 04 Aug 2008, vetderm wrote:

    Cat fleas will readily bite humans causing irritation and severe reactions in sensitised indivduals. They are also a vector for cat scratch fever (Bartonella). Flea allergic dermatitis is one of the most common and severe skin diseases of dogs and cats.

    Thanks to carpets and central heating, fleas are an all year round problem in the UK, albeit worse in the summer. Eggs and pupae may lie dormant for at least 12 months.

    Flea control is relatively straightforward using on-animal insecticides, such as Frontline, Advocate, Advantage, Practic, Promeris (all spot-on contact toxins), Stronghold (systemic spot-on) and Capstar (systemic tablet - very rapid action but short-lived), and an environmental spray containing an insecticide and insect growth hormone regulator (e.g. Indorex, Acclaim, Staykil).

    These products are all very safe for animals (except fish) and humans, but ask your vet how to use then safely and effectively.

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  • 18. At 2:33pm on 04 Aug 2008, FleaCircusDirector wrote:

    Dunky, yes you are correct, Bob does make the important note in his book that distribution of dots may be skewed by the distribution of flea researchers so lack of reported fleas does not necessarily mean that they are not there. The distribution of flea types is also dependant on the distribution of their hosts so perhaps Dundee and Perth also don't have many cat lovers?

    CarolineMB, Bob was recording for several years before he had help from Miriam Rothschild to setup the National recording scheme so he has been doing this for 1/2 century.


    Andy from the Flea Circus Research Library.

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  • 19. At 5:02pm on 04 Aug 2008, virtualfang wrote:

    I never said that getting the cats in the pillow case was easy. With Chalky it was put several dry bits of catfood into the case and wait till he stuck his head inside. With Foozie you had to play the chase and trap in the bath room game though if you put any box down she would willingly climb inside That way you just put the pillowcase over the only way out.

    After bath please use moderately warm hair dryer and flea comb to get all the little buggers out and stop pussy getting a chill.

    I do agree with vet derm about spraying the carpets we use one from the vets that means no fleas ever. In the US we used a flea bomb but this required all occupants including birds and fish to be evacuated for several hours.

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  • 20. At 9:31pm on 04 Aug 2008, FleaCircusDirector wrote:


    the Hedgehog Flea (Archaeopsylla erinacei erinacei) is very common and can be found on nearly every hedgehog. According to Bob's Atlas it's been found on dogs, red fox, human and rabbit but these are very rare, particularly given the large number of these fleas (over 7000 were found on one poor hedgehog).

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  • 21. At 10:02pm on 04 Aug 2008, chowbelanna wrote:

    I live near Perth and my dogs have never had fleas - lucky really as they are Chows and therefore severely allergic to flea bites. 2 of my cats have never had fleas but the 3rd gets them all the time, I suspect they are rabbit fleas as they don't bite us (so probably not cat fleas) and she seems to spend most of her time eating bunnies. They only infest the edges of the cat's ears and are very unsightly. I find regular use of Frontline keeps them under control. I'd like to see a map of rabbit flea distribution.

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  • 22. At 09:09am on 05 Aug 2008, Alan wrote:


    If you want a true picture of parasite distribution for the UK, check out the Parliamentary Constituencies Map!

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  • 23. At 7:27pm on 05 Aug 2008, Frankinjax wrote:

    I live in Florida, USA. Also known as the bug capitol of America.

    During the summer we have always had the attack of the fleas in July and August.

    To combat them we use a variety of means. One of the best is IGR or insect growth regualtor. It is a non-toxic simulated hormone that prevents fleas and roaches from reproduceing. No eggs-no fleas.

    In the house, after an initial cleanout, IGR is applied liberaly every 6 months. I also treat our carpets with a mix of diatomacious earth and boric acid powder. The combination is death to insects but harmless to mammals.

    If you need source information or other help email me at

    ::: To prevent spammrs from picking up the address :::

    [Personal details removed by Moderator]

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  • 24. At 2:01pm on 06 Aug 2008, chrisboote wrote:

    #8. JamieTaylorWC1 wrote:

    "Roll on Parliament reconvening..."

    For no man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session
    (Judge Gideon Tucker, 1866)


    This country has come to feel the same when the legislature is in session as we do when the baby gets hold of a hammer. It's just a question of how much damage he can do with it before you take it away from him
    (Will Rogers, 1930)

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  • 25. At 2:05pm on 06 Aug 2008, chrisboote wrote:

    #22. youngerap wrote:
    If you want a true picture of parasite distribution for the UK, check out the Parliamentary Constituencies Map!

    Bravo sir or madam! But you now owe me one keyboard to replace the one I just sprayed orange juice all over 8-)

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  • 26. At 7:07pm on 07 Aug 2008, judihatter wrote:

    We had a problem with our indoor cats earlier this year. I used Advantage on the cats and Borax on the carpet. It seemed to work. I liked the Borax because you can just leave it in the carpet and hoover it up in a few days.

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  • 27. At 8:21pm on 10 Aug 2008, trogette wrote:

    Borax isn't entirely harmless but is a naturally occuring mineral rather than a commercially produced product which appeals to some, it works by dehydrating the flea larvae. I need to chuck some down myself, but treating carpets does rather depend on the carpet being accessible and not covered in 4 children's accumulated tat, lol. Diatomaceous earth under the shed where the hedgehogs live might well help, but it's not easy to get hold of the right kind of stuff over here.

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