Humans wear clothes because we don’t have the same protective fur that other mammals have. But because we live with cats, dogs, bunnies, parrots, and other pets, we sometimes get attacked by the parasites and pests that target them, including their vertebrates and worms. That said, can fleas live on clothes? The short answer is no, but we’ll need to dig a bit deeper.
What Are Fleas?
Fleas are blood-sucking parasites that typically hide in an animal’s fur or feathers. So in a way, they’re vampire bugs, though they don’t melt or burst into flame in sunlight. They’re typically dark brown or black, with stripe-like body segments and agile limbs that let them jump 100 times their height! They have thin, flat bodies that can easily slip into small spaces.
But while most flattened insects are horizontally streamlined, fleas are vertically compressed so their narrow sideways bodies are hard to squish between your fingers. They can’t fly, but since they jump so high, they often bite the ankles, calves, lower legs, and knees of humans. But they mostly target furry pets because those furry bodies provide safety and camouflage.
Fleas can spread diseases like typhus, tularemia, tungiasis, and the plague. They can also cause allergic reactions. They don’t typically target humans – they prefer cats, dogs, and even squirrels. They need a warm host to feed on since their teeth can’t grip or penetrate fabric. So if they do land on your clothes, they leave within 24 hours unless they reach uncovered skin.
Also, while fleas can hang out in your hair for a bit, they can’t live or reproduce there, since human hair is far finer than mammal fur. The flea can’t grip it firmly enough to latch. Plus hair isn’t as warm as fur, and fleas don’t do well with the chills. But they can hide on beds, rugs, and couches because the warm body they’ve been feeding on will eventually come back.
Life Cycle of a Flea
While fleas can’t live on clothes, they can survive in tall grass and wet piles of leaves. So if you have a pet with outdoor access, it could pick fleas, bring them back indoors, and pass some onto your clothing when you cuddle. But the fleas won’t stay on your clothes too long. That said, a single flea can grow into a colony within weeks, and it can take 3 months to fix!
Female fleas lay almost 30 eggs every day, and these eggs can hatch in two days or even two weeks. Their larva looks like a worm, though it doesn’t drink blood. Instead, it nibbles on dead matter that’s sitting on the skin of its host. Mostly, these are the feces of grown fleas, which usually have dried and/or digested blood that’s reasonably nourishing for the babies.
Over 2,500 species of fleas exist, and they mostly restrict themselves to one type of host. They can feed on other hosts but can’t mate or lay viable eggs on them. That’s part of the reason they don’t stay on clothing – their teeth grab specific hosts. Also, adult fleas are 3mm. You can easily see them on flat clothing since there’s no raised fur or feathers to hide them.
At any one time, half the population of a flea colony are eggs and only 5% are adults. A third are the wormy larvae while 10% are non-feeding pupae. When pupae exit their cocoon, they become immature adults called imagoes. An imago needs a blood meal to make its gonads ready for mating and/or laying eggs. Then in two days to two weeks, their life cycle restarts.
Why Can’t Fleas Live on Clothes?
Many of the insects that hide in clothing have flat bodies. This makes them harder to see on equally flat fabrics. But fleas are laterally compressed, so they have streamlined sides that appear raised on clothing, making them much easier to spot. This quality is ideal for hiding in their host bodies though. Vertical bodies can slip between the follicles of feathers and fur.
Another reason is the absence of shelter. Fleas are not only visible on fabric fibers, they’re also exposed to the elements. There’s no warmth or moisture, and there isn’t any food either! Remember, fleas can live in tall grass because it protects them from strong sunlight and wind. Unkempt lawns and dead leaves also attract birds, rats, mice, squirrels, and rodents.
These creatures can provide a ready food source when the flea can’t access dogs or cats. Plus, if it’s near human dwellings, these pets may eventually stray into those areas, allowing the flea to hitch a ride and upgrade their diet. So while you may not need to treat your clothes for fleas, it helps to routinely spray pesticides in your lawns and flower beds to keep them away.
Finally, while other vampire bugs like mosquitoes and bed bugs make their babies elsewhere, fleas breed and lay eggs on the bodies of their hosts. And since many fleas have simple eyes and some are blind, they need to stay directly on their source of food and warmth. Clothes don’t offer either amenity, so they’re not a logical location for fleas to stay in the long term.
Other Food Sources for Fleas
If you’ve been working in tall grass – or if your pet sleeps in your bedroom – you might get flea bites on your legs and ankles. This is because fleas can jump about 7” up and 13” across so they rarely reach higher than your calves. And even when you’re sitting or lying down, clothes typically cover the sections above your knees. Socks can offer minimal protection.
Notably, while most people think the bubonic plague was caused by rats, it actually came from infected fleas that bit the rats, which then spread it to people. There was also come occult-related panic at the time that led to thousands of cats being killed, making the rats tougher to control. That said, flea larvae can also eat dead insects, veggies, and other eggs.
The more food the larvae can access, the faster it grows. It will typically molt three times before it spins a cocoon for its pupal form. And the larva stage can be anywhere from four days to almost three weeks. But the cocoon stage is much shorter, usually four days. Sound, warmth, and vibration will trigger the adult flea (aka imago) to break out of its pupal sheath.
Depending on the species, some fleas reproduce throughout the year while others follow the season. Either way, breeding cycles are based on the patterns and lifestyles of their host. A healthy flea can live 18 months though an imago can die within days if it doesn’t get its first blood meal. But if it’s still inside its cocoon aka puparium, it can survive 100 days without food.
Getting Rid of Fleas
If your cat, dog, or bird has light-colored fur, you might see the fleas weaving through their fluff. Your pet may also scratch to get them off, reacting to the irritation of the bite. Sadly, this rarely works. Remember those ‘striped segments’ we mentioned earlier? They’re called sclerites, and they’re rigid plates that make it tough for pet claws to scrape them off the skin.
Fleas have spines and hairs on their sclerites. These point backward to reduce resistance and help the pest glide through the follicles. Also, the plates combine with the skinny frame to make fleas impervious to swatting and squishing. The best solutions – pun intended – are flea baths, flea pipettes, and flea dust. Use them once a month for three consecutive months.
Check that the bath is safe for your pet’s needs since livestock baths can be toxic for smaller household pals. Flea pipettes are dropped directly onto the animal’s skin, with dosages based on weight. Overdosing can cause painful itching and bald patches, so measure carefully. As for flea dust, it works well on mattresses, pet beds, rugs, carpets, flower gardens, and lawns.
But when you apply the dust, wear gloves and a mask because it’s dangerous to inhale. Wash your hands thoroughly after use and avoid touching your eyes or ears while using flea dust. If possible, keep the pets away from treated beds and fabrics for a few hours so they don’t get too much of the dust in their respiratory passages. You can dust their fur directly though.
Removing Fleas From Your Clothes
Their ability for extended hunger strikes, the strength to withstand smushing pressure, and the capacity to lay so many fast-hatching eggs make fleas tough to destroy. Consistent pest prevention, control, and management are your best weapons. Fleas can’t live in clothes, but they love leasing your pet’s body, and they can thrive in many other parts of your household.
If you do spot fleas on your clothes, they probably landed on you while you were cuddling or grooming your pet. They may also have jumped from an infested bed or sofa where their host loves to hang out. Wash the clothes in hot water and dry them in direct sunlight or high heat. Do you know any other curious facts about fleas? Share them in the comments section below.