Fleas are the bane of many a pet owner. Even people without animals in their homes can become infested with these agile, fast-multiplying parasites. The minute any warm-blooded creature — including you — leaves your house, he or she becomes fair game for fleas or flea eggs, which can be carried in on shoes or via a breeze through an open window. A single female may lay up to 500 eggs during her lifetime, with egg production stimulated by blood meals. That means each time a flea bites you or your cat, many more fleas are in your future.
Scientists, however, recently discovered that the deadliest flea weapon is probably tucked away right now in your closet. It’s your vacuum cleaner.
But not just any vacuum cleaner is effective against fleas. There are certain vacuum size and weight requirements and particular places you need to target when cleaning. If you are concerned about fleas, as well as the potential health effects of pesticides, the following information may forever change the way you deal with pet parasites.
How Your Vacuum Kills Fleas
According to entomologist Glen Needham, PhD, of Ohio State University, not much research had been done on how vacuuming kills fleas. He and colleague W. Fred Hink, PhD, were curious what happens to fleas after they’ve been vacuumed up. Dr. Hink decided to raise fleas at various life stages before placing them on a carpet. He then cleaned the area with a vacuum that had a permanent cloth bag fitted with a disposable paper inner bag. Both scientists were surprised by what they saw when they placed the bag’s contents under a microscope.
“There were all of these crispy little dead things that used to be live fleas,” Dr. Needham says. “Ninety-six percent of all the adult fleas had died, while one hundred percent of the flea pupae and larvae had died.”
Puzzled by the flea carnage, Dr. Hink conducted further experiments to determine what exactly killed these fleas. He ruled out the possibility that the paper bag wasn’t somehow toxic or that the power of the moving air did in the fleas. “We instead believe that the vacuum machinery itself, particularly the brushes, bangs up the fleas to such a violent degree that they perish,” Dr. Needham says.
He explains that all ticks, fleas, mites and many other parasites need water to survive. To preserve body moisture, fleas secrete a waxy substance that coats the outside of their bodies. Fleas often repair minor damage to the wax layer, but “the vacuum machinery must penetrate this protective layer to such a degree that wax coating is irreparable.”
Not Just Any Vacuum De-fleas
While the scientists didn’t test multiple vacuum brands, they theorize that older vacuums, with inner brushes and bags, work better at killing fleas than most of the “sexy” newer vacuums with less inner moving parts. Many of the newer vortex suction vacuums, for example, probably lack the punishing parts that cause fleas to kick the bucket.
If you have an older vacuum that still works, you may consider pulling it out for your flea-targeted cleanups. For the study, the scientists used a Royal Deluxe upright all-metal vacuum, Model M1010. Any vacuum that’s a similar size and shape will do the trick. If you don’t already have one, you can find them at your local appliance store or used models at, yes, your local flea market.
Best Ways to Foil Fleas
The scientists suggest these measures for keeping your home flea free:
- Choose carpeting carefully Flea pupae spin a cocoon that can wind around carpet strands. This makes it very difficult to suck them up into a vacuum. Plush carpeting may therefore harbor more fleas, after vacuuming, than flatter, less fibrous carpeting. Since the latter is generally less expensive, you may get more out of your carpet dollars, at least in terms of cleaning for fleas, by purchasing such non-plush carpeting. Replacing carpeted areas with wood or some other type of solid flooring would be another option to consider if your budget could permit the switch.
- Vacuum your fabric furniture Couches and chairs may all contain fleas and other parasites, which can creep beyond the upper surface that you see. At least one a week, vacuum all such furniture thoroughly, particularly if your cat likes to snooze or rest on it. This will not only rid the furniture of fleas, but it will also remove flea eggs and future chances for infestation.
- Frequently wash your bedding Just as parasites can move into furniture, they may also live in your mattress. Mites are in many bedroom mattresses. Be sure to wash your bedding, including the mattress pad, at least once or twice weekly. Adding bleach to the wash cycle will help to ensure the demise of creepy crawlies.
- Rotate your mattress Parasites often rely on body humidity for their survival. “If you regularly rotate your mattress, it’s like sending insects to the desert,” Dr. Needham says. Experiments show that once the mattress is flipped, the bloodsuckers, initially on the top, die of desiccation. “For some reason, they don’t move back up,” he explains. Try to do the rotation twice monthly with a helper to make the task a snap.
- Vacuum your mattress Few of us vacuum our mattresses, but researchers advise that this should also be done on a regular basis. A good vacuuming once or twice weekly will help to prevent parasites. It will also ease your mind come bedtime.
- Clean your curtains Fabric curtains can harbor parasites, so these too should be shaken outside and/or washed. If the fabric is fully machine washable, use a color safe bleach to boost the cleaning power. If the fabric isn’t machine washable, opt to dry clean your curtains twice yearly or more often, if needed. Hanging curtains in the bright sun can also help to dry up parasites and to sterilize the material.
The Future of Home Flea Control
At present, Dr. Needham is investigating a new technology that will allow people to have their high tech, sexy vacuums and still be able to kill fleas, as well as destroy fungi, bacteria and germs. Such systems use ultraviolet radiation to zap the pests dead. “It may revolutionize cleaning,” he says, “and the federal government is also interested, since similar devices may be used in the event of a bioterrorist attack.” He adds that both upright and hand-held UV-based vacuums should be on the market in the not-too-distant future.