Pests: Hungry cat fleas jump to it for an autumn epidemic

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The Independent Online
It can jump 118 times its own height, survives for months without food and breeds at a rate that puts rabbits to shame. The cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis, is proving harder than ever to eradicate. Kathy Marks finds that an epidemic is driving householders to distraction.

Autumn is the season when pet owners breathe a sigh of relief, confident that the annual explosion of cat fleas is over. This year, though, is proving to be unusual. Instead of dying off, the fleas are hanging around, stubborn, numerous and voraciously hungry.

Vets are reporting long queues in their surgeries of distraught people covered in bites from head to foot. Shops are being emptied of anti-flea treatments and business is thriving for pest control companies.

''People are coming into my surgery absolutely desperate because their homes are completely infested,'' said John Bower, a vet in Plymouth. ''They say that they don't care what it takes or what it costs, they just want the fleas out.''

Paul DeVile, a vet in Eastbourne, East Sussex, said: ''Every year seems worse than the last, but this one is particularly bad. I would have expected the fleas to have all died off by now.''

A warm October, followed by a sudden transition to wintry conditions, is thought to be partly to blame. Usually there is a flea peak in spring, as the weather warms up, followed by a final fling in late August.

However, widespread central heating means that the microscopic parasites increasingly breed throughout the year.

During its three-week life cycle, a female flea lays up to 500 eggs, which drop off the cat and can lie dormant for eight months, waiting for a host. After hatching, they die in a frenzy of mating, gorging and egg laying. Mr Bower said that some pet owners assumed they were immune because their homes were clean. "But fleas love nothing better than a nice warm house with deep-pile carpets."

Cat fleas, the most common species, are equally at home on a dog. They cannot live on people, but are happy to snack on any warm-blooded creature, including humans. Rentokil has been called to fumigate offices as well as homes, as people unwittingly carry fleas into work on their clothes.

Lindy May, a nurse who lives in south London, returned home from holiday with her family to find the place jumping, despite the fact that their cat, Bingo, wears a flea collar.

''As soon as we walked in, there were fleas all over us,'' she said. ''When we got into bed, they got into bed with us. We sprayed the house, but it took five weeks to get rid of them.''

Mr DeVile said fleas were becoming resistant to some chemical products. ''I think that insects will take over the world because whatever we do to try to eradicate them, they come out on top.''