External parasites are generally found on or in the skin and are important pests because they bite or annoy both humans and their pets. Fleas, mites, and ticks are the most frequently encountered and most troublesome pests that attack humans and their pets.
Fleas are small 1.5 mm, dark, reddish-brown, wingless, blood-sucking insects. Their bodies are laterally compressed, (i.e., flattened side to side) permitting easy movement through the hairs on the host's body. Their legs are long and well adapted for jumping. The flea body is hard, polished, and covered with many hairs and short spines directed backward. The mouth parts of an adult flea are adapted for sucking blood from a host. Adult fleas must feed on blood in order to reproduce. Adults can live for long periods without feeding.
Adults emerge from the pupal case when vibrations from pets or humans let them know a host is near. This is one reason why people returning to an unoccupied home may suddenly be attacked by an army of fleas.
Fleas usually live and breed most heavily where pets rest. Persons coming near these resting places are also subject to attack. If fleas are established in a home, they will feed on man as well as on the pets. The usual places of attack are the ankles and lower portions of the legs.
The so-called "sand-flea" is nothing more than a common flea that is breeding outdoors in the soil. Contrary to belief, fleas cannot go through several generations without having a blood meal.
Fleas often breed in large numbers where pets and other animals live. Pets infested with fleas bite and scratch themselves constantly. Their coats become roughened and the skin can become infected. Symptoms of sensitized hosts are often mistaken for mange. Cat fleas and dog fleas may be intermediate hosts for the dog tapeworm.
Some people suffer more than others from flea bites. The bites can cause intense itching often resulting in secondary infection. The usual flea bite has a small red spot where the flea has inserted its mouthparts. Around the spot there is a red halo with very little swelling. Many people do not react to flea bites at all while others are sensitive and suffer severe allergic reactions. Fleas may also vector such human diseases as plague, typhus