Fleas range from about 1–5 mm in size (usually around 3 mm). Their bodies are flat, shiny and have a tough surface. These features mean the flea can move through the hair of their hosts without being dislodged.

Where fleas live

Fleas are very common in New Zealand, particularly in association with cats and dogs.

Several species are found on a range of warm-blooded hosts, including humans (eg, the cat flea, the dog flea, the bird flea, and the northern rat flea). Adult fleas are found on the hosts themselves, whereas the larvae and pupae live in places like the burrows or nests of hosts.

When fleas have not fed for some time they are likely to be less specific about their choice of host and this may involve having a human blood meal. While the human flea is rare in New Zealand, cat and bird fleas are very common.

Health risks from fleas

Fleas can transmit infectious diseases from one host to another and are historically known as carriers of the plague. However, today fleas are better known as pests and for the irritation they cause.

Fleas can carry tapeworms

Fleas can play host to tapeworms, which can also cause infection in humans. You can get tapeworms if you accidentally swallow an infected flea. This can be treated with antihelmintics.

If you get flea bites

Treatments for flea bites are limited – however, if a rash develops then you should see your doctor.

Getting rid of fleas

There are things you can do to reduce the chances of having fleas.

  • If you have pets, ensure they are treated for fleas.
  • Vacuum the carpets and furnishings your pets use to remove fleas.
  • Clean or remove bedding and nests.

Use insecticide to kill fleas if you find them.