Stick-fast flea infestation is common in backyard poultry flocks on Kangaroo Island. The flea is mostly a parasite of poultry, however it will infest any animal. Severe infestations lead to anaemia and death, especially in young chickens or ducklings. The stickfast flea is found on all classes of poultry and also on native birds. Dogs, cats, horses, sheep and numerous native animals also spread the flea and it will bite humans.
The stick fast flea has been in Australia since the early 1900s. It the 1950s, this blood sucking insect became a serious problem in the intensive poultry industry and was one of the reasons why commercial egg producers moved to battery style cages. Removal of access to the ground quickly eradicated stick fast fleas from these flocks.
The complete lifecycle of the flea takes about four weeks under ideal conditions but can be much longer in cold weather. The female fleas lay eggs at night while attached to the bird, dog or cat, and the very small eggs fall to the ground. In about four days, small worm-like larvae emerge from the eggs.
The larvae feed on organic material, mainly the dried blood excreted by the adult fleas, and shelter in the surface dust and litter on the soil. After several moults, they grow to about 3mm, cease to feed and burrow down into soil to a depth of about 15cm. Here they spin silken cocoons within which they develop into adult fleas. This last stage takes about two weeks. Then the adult fleas emerge, burrow their way to the surface and search for a host.
Where to look
Evidence of infection usually appears on the comb, wattle and face. With a heavy infestation, the greater part of the head may appear black. During moult, fleas may also be seen under the wings, on the breast and around the vent.
In dogs and cats, the fleas are most commonly found on the inside of the ear flaps and the eyebrow region, between the toes and on a bare skin of the abdomen, however solitary fleas may be found all over the body.
The fleas bury their mouthparts in the flesh, breathe through the rear portion and remain fixed in position for the remainder of their life, appearing as dense shiny black or brown masses.
Prevention and Control
Remember, if you are dealing with an established population, the pupal life stage can remain in the soil for many months and it may take at least a year of repeated treatment to eradicate them from your yard.