Can Fleas Live on Humans?

Fleas and Their Preferred Hosts

Flea
An adult cat flea (male).

K. Walker, Museum Victoria/Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia License)

If you've ever had flea bites, you've probably wondered whether fleas can live on people. The good news is fleas don't live on people's bodies, with very few exceptions. The bad news is fleas can and will inhabit human dwellings, even in the absence of pets.

Kinds of Fleas and Their Preferred Hosts

There are actually many kinds of fleas, and each species has a preferred host.

Human fleas (Pulex irritans) prefer to feed on humans or pigs, but these parasites are very uncommon in homes in developed countries and are more often associated with wildlife. Farms sometimes become infested with human fleas, particularly in pigpens.

Rat fleas (Xenopsylla cheopis and Nosopsyllus fasciatus) are parasites of Norway rats and roof rats. They generally don't infest human dwellings unless rats are present. Rat fleas are medically important ectoparasites, however, because they transmit disease-causing organisms to humans. The Oriental rat flea is the main carrier of the organism that causes plague.

Hen fleas (Echidnophaga gallinacea) are parasites of poultry. These fleas, also known as sticktight fleas, attach to their hosts. When chickens are infested, fleas may accumulate visibly around their eyes, comb, and wattle. Although hen fleas prefer to feed on birds, they will feed on people who live in proximity to or who care for infested poultry.

Chigoe fleas (Tunga penetrans and Tunga trimamillata) are an exception to the rule. These fleas not only live on people, but they also burrow into human skin. Worse still, they burrow into human feet, where they cause itching, swelling, skin ulcers, and loss of toenails, and they can even impede walking. But don't panic just yet. Chigoe fleas inhabit the tropics and subtropics and are mainly a concern in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

Cat fleas (Ctenocephalides felis) are almost always the fleas that invade our homes and feed on our pets. Despite their name, cat fleas are just as likely to feed on Fido as they are on Miss Kitty. And though they don't usually live on non-furry hosts like humans, they can and do bite people. 

Less often, dog fleas (Ctenocephalides canis) infest homes. Dog fleas aren't picky parasites, either, and will gladly draw blood from your cat.

Cat and Dog Fleas Prefer Furry Hosts

In either case—cat or dog fleas—the adult fleas are built for hiding in fur. Their laterally flattened bodies help them navigate between pieces of fur or hair. Backward-facing spines on their bodies help them cling to Fido's fur when he's on the move. Our relatively hairless bodies don't make great hiding places for fleas, and it's much harder for them to hang on to our bare skin.

Still, people living with pets eventually find themselves faced with a flea infestation. As they multiply in number, all those bloodthirsty fleas are competing for your pet and may begin biting you instead. Flea bites typically occur on the ankles or lower legs. And yes, flea bites do itch, especially if you're allergic to them.

Can I Get Fleas if I Don't Have Pets?

Although fleas rarely take up residence on human skin, they can and will live happily in a human home with no pets present. If fleas find their way into your house and don't find a dog, cat, or bunny on which to feed, they will consider you as the next best thing.

Sources

  • "Controlling Fleas," Texas A&M factsheet.
  • "Fleas," University of Florida factsheet.
  • Physician's Guide to Arthropods of Medical Importance, 6th edition, by Jerome Goddard.