Why Fleas and Ticks Are So Gross

Why Fleas and Ticks Are So Gross

There are stinkbugs and dung beetles. Hissing cockroaches and foam grasshoppers. The Giant Weta and the so-called “Assassin Bug.”

But gross names aside, fleas and ticks set the bar for new lows – and here’s why (just in case you need more reason for controlling these pesky pests):

A Need to Breed

No flowers and candlelight needed. It’s blood that feeds their sexual desire…and what an appetite!

To get into the mood, a flea can bite more than 400 times a day – females are so voracious they can consume 15 times her weight in blood daily. And what happens? A male saunters by, using antennae on his genitalia with plunger-like suckers to pierce females so he can “hang on” during the act.

If you’re wondering, when studied in a lab, “the length of the mating interval terminated by the male ranged from 25 to 110 minutes and was significantly longer than that terminated by the female, which averaged 12 minutes,” according to a 2001 study in the Journal of Medical Entomology. OK, maybe she’s not as much into the sex, but certainly its result – laying up to 50 eggs a day for several weeks or about some 2,000 while her maternal clock is clicking. Those babies have babies and the Circle of Strife continues…on your pet’s body, upholstered furniture and carpeting.

Ticks have no special body parts for rockin’ rolls in the sack (or your pet’s fur, as the case is). But they are such tenacious lovers that when your dog is scratching, it could be an effort – although usually unsuccessful – trying to dislodge two mating ticks. But despite the activity of The Act, there’s no post-coitus spooning: male ticks usually die after mating, and females do likewise after laying up to 6,500 eggs.

Keeping the Family Name

Fleas are wingless but certainly get airtime. Outdoors, they usually jump onto pets (and you) with a vertical leap that’s up to 130 times higher than their size – equivalent to a 6-foot man topping a 78-story building. But some sneak indoors through gaps in windows and doors or on clothing or even the bottoms of shoes: no worries about being crushed, thanks to armor-like bodies. They’re squatters, feeding and laying eggs on one “host” pet until they die. But the smooth and slippery eggs drop off everywhere the host roams – throughout your house, car, bedroom.

Ticks are creepy crawlers – and technically not insects but eight-legged arachnids like spiders and scorpions. They lie in wait, usually on leaves or tall grass, and detect body heat and exhaled carbon dioxide from passing animals and then hitch a ride on their new meal ticket and search for a warm, moist place on the body. The saliva of some species has an anesthetic effect to prevent hosts from noticing they’re a meal, and cement-like substances to keep the tick firmly anchored to the host's body during feeding (as you’ll notice when trying to remove them). After the female is engorged with blood, she detaches from the host and lays her thousands of eggs wherever. Most ticks feed on different hosts during the larvae, nymph and adult stages of life.

From Dining to Disease

Fleas first made news as carriers of the Black Plague that killed 60 percent of the European population in the 14th century. Since then, their disease-spreading impact has been less severe but certainly not unnoticeable. The most common condition affecting dogs and cats is flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), causing rashes, swelling and possible lesions, infection and changes to skin structure. Other itching could affect the anal area – in pets and people, especially children – due to flea-spread tapeworms. There’s also bartonellosis, which causes the ailment known as “cat scratch fever.” (Cats usually don’t develop symptoms; rather fleas spread the disease-causing bacteria to them, and felines to humans through scratches.)

Ticks can kill, causing at least five conditions that are potentially fatal to dogs. What's more, a single tick bite can transmit multiple diseases, and the longer a tick is attached to the host (thank you, cement-like saliva), the greater the chance of infection.