The Life and Impact of Rat Fleas

The infamous rat flea is a small patristic bug that primarily feeds on the blood of rodents but will also take advantage of a human host if the need to do so arises. The scientific name of the rat flea is Xenopsylla cheopis. As is discussed in a moment, perhaps no other bug has had a more significant impact on human history than the lowly rat flea.

The rat flea is also known as the Oriental rat flea as well as the tropical rat flea. It is important to note that the rat flea is not the same type of flea that attacks cats or dogs. A comprehensive overview of the life and impact of the rat flea is presented for your consideration.

Physical Attributes of the Rat Flea

As mentioned, the rat flea is very small, measuring about one-tenth of an inch when it reaches maturity. The body of the rat flea is divided into four primary component parts:

  • Head
  • Thorax
  • Abdomen
  • Legs

Both the head and thorax feature rows of bristles, which technically are called “combs.” The abdomen is comprised of eight segments.

The rat flea does have a pair of eyes. However, these eyes can only detect light and nothing more.

The mouth of the fat flea serves two purposes:

  • Injecting salvia into a host (which is the process through which disease can transfer into a human via this parasite)
  • Draw blood from a host (for sustenance)

The legs of the rat flea are very powerful, a fact that will be discussed in greater detail in a moment. The rat flea lacks both wings and arms.

The Lifecycle of the Rat Flea

The lifecycle of the rat flea begins when a female lays eggs. The eggs are white in color and are barely visible to the naked eye. Indeed, the only real reason rat flea eggs can be detected is that many eggs are laid by a female in one general location, the total cluster being somewhat visible. A female lays eggs directly on the ground or in a rat’s nest. As is discussed further in regard to reproduction, a female can lay a good many eggs during the course of a day.

Larvae emerge from the eggs and can grow to be about twice the size of a rat flea into which they eventually develop. Larvae look quite like small worms.

Larvae differ from rat fleas themselves because they do not consume blood. Rather, larvae eat such things as animal hair, skin cells, and flea droppings.

Eventually, larvae will spin silken, white cocoons. The parasite pupates while in the cocoon, emerging as an adult rat flea.

An adult rat flea is capable of living up to a year. What this means is that the lifespan of a rat flea can outpace that of a good percentage of rats living in the wild.

When it comes to rat flea reproduction, a female can mate only one time and then lay up to 50 eggs a day for an indefinite period of time.

Rat Flea Mobility

A misconception some people have about rat fleas is that they can fly. In fact, they cannot. What a rat flea can do is jump – and jump a significant distance, considering its size. Rat fleas are capable of jumping 200-times the length of their bodies. Considering the average size of a rat flea’s body, such a jump can be upwards of 20 inches. Because of the significant length, a rat flea can jump, the illusion of flight does exist.

The Rat Flea and the Black Death

The pandemic oftentimes called the Black Death occurred in Europe and Asia as well as other points across the globe in the 14th century. The Black Plague is thought to have been spread by a bacterium carried by the rat flea. During the course of the Black Plague, between 75 to 200 million people were thought to have been killed by the disease in Europe and Asia.

The Black Death got its name because the disease itself resulted in a person suffering from gangrene, or the death of a person’s skin. This resulted in a person’s flesh turning black.

The Black Death, also known as the Bubonic Plague, reappeared from time to time throughout Europe into the 19th century. In addition, there were some outbreaks of Bubonic Plague in North America as well.

The Rat Flea and Other Diseases and Conditions

The rat flea is known to spread other diseases as well. In addition, tapeworms can be spread to humans via the rat flea as well. The prospect of rats being infested with fleas, coupled with the health risks that these parasites present in and of themselves, underscores the need to eradicate rats if an infestation occurs in a home, business, or other location. In addition to fleas, rat droppings can also present a health hazard.