Wanted: thousands and thousands of fleas


Wanted: thousands and thousands of fleas

SA researcher goes where pet owners dread, delving into the genetics, distribution and diversity of the pesky critters

Senior science reporter

They’re the bane of all pet owners’ lives, but now a researcher at Stellenbosch University wants them – in abundance.
Dr Luther van der Mescht, a parasitologist, is putting fleas on the agenda, looking at their diversity in SA, as well as the distribution of different species.
He is focusing specifically on cat fleas, according to the university, and wants to know more about their “genetics, distribution and diversity”.
This means that all over the country animal welfare organisations are going through the fur of their feline friends and donating the pickings to Van der Mescht.
But don’t feel excluded if you’re living it up with your thoroughbred Persian in the comfort of your own home: the researcher has also invited the public to send flea samples by the end of April. And here’s a tip: it is best to store dead insects in a small container of ethanol.
The motivation behind his research is that cat fleas are the “most commonly found fleas plaguing pets”. The flea is parasitic and is formally known as Ctenocephalides felis. Although the “felis” implies its use of felines as hosts, a high proportion of fleas found on dogs are also of this species.
Animals covered with these fleas often suffer from tapeworms over time, and can become quite emaciated in the process, so Van der Mescht hopes to give us more insight into the where, who and how of the problem.
“It is very difficult to identify with the naked eye which fleas are all members of the Ctenocephalides felis-complex, and therefore we do not really know which species of cat fleas are found on South African dogs or cats. The previous thorough survey on the topic was done in the 1970s,” he says.
All the collected fleas will be studied using microscope and genetic techniques and the findings will “be valuable when trying to ensure that the right types of flea repellents are used in different regions”.
• For details about how to take part, contact Van der Mescht at luthervdm@sun.ac.za

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