FAQ: Is it fleas or bed bugs?

by nobugsonme on November 9, 2012 · 14 comments

in fleas

You may be wondering, do I have fleas or bed bugs?

Scanning Electron Micrograph of a Flea.

 Scanning Electron Micrograph of a Flea.

So you think something is biting you but you’re not sure what?  Many folks eventually find the culprit is fleas, rather than bed bugs.

Myth: I don’t have pets so I can’t have fleas.

Not true! 

Fleas can live in your home even if you don’t have pets.

You may bring them in or may be bitten outside, for example you might encounter the types of fleas that bite humans or dogs in grassy areas like a park.  Or they might come from vertebrate pests which have nested in or around your home.

Paul Bello (in this Bedbugger forum post) shares some background information on how fleas may get into a home:

While fleas are usually associated with pet cats or dogs in the house, it is not uncommon for a home to have fleas even though there are no pets present. This can occur when pest animals have nested in the home. Animals such as mice, rats, squirrels, opossums, raccoons and others can have fleas. These animals can nest in a home undetected for a period of time. And, since they’re wild animals that are not being attended to for their fleas, the flea population can grow over time. These fleas then become numerous and may travel for various reasons into the living space of the home to become problematic for the human residents.

Over the years we have seen such circumstances where opossums were nesting undetected by the homeowner in an inaccessible crawl space under the home. In another situation a family of raccoons were nesting above a basement drop ceiling undetected. At yet another home, we trapped out over twenty squirrels and six opossums from the same attic. While all these vertebrate pest situations brought fleas into the home where they nested, we also need to remember that it was the oriental rat flea, which helped spread plague which killed about 25% of the world’s known population during the 1300s.

Additionally, many homeowners returning from a trip may be surprised by hundreds of fleas when they return home. This is so because developing fleas that have matured in their pupal cases often lay in wait protected within these pupal cases in the absence of suitable hosts. These fleas can lay in wait within these cases a surprising length of time. When the people return home the hungry fleas emerge.

Here’s an image a forum user submitted of her flea:



Here are some more helpful images of fleas.

Dog flea

Dog flea (C. canis)

The dog flea according to this UC Davis factsheet, is uncommon in California, though cat fleas will bite both cats and dogs.

cat flea

Cat flea (C. felis) full of human blood.

(More flea images, from the CDC.)

These images are highly magnified, obviously — fleas are 1/16″ to 1/8″ long.  They often look quite a bit darker.

Fleas leap very high, considering their small size, and you may see them doing this.  They move quickly close to a pet’s hairline and are hard to catch with your fingers.  They often bite the lower legs and feet.

However, flea bites may look like bed bug bites, and as with bed bugs, to identify them, you need to find visual evidence, rather than relying on what your skin reaction looks like.

How to determine if you have fleas

You can buy cheap, plugin flea traps (like those shown in our Amazon store) at a hardware store or online.

You can also make your own homemade flea trap. Pest management professional and Bedbugger forums regular Paul Bello outlines the steps as follows below:


  • an old-fashioned desk lamp, the type where you can direct the light with the metal flex arm that extends upward from the base.
  • a shallow baking tray of about 9″ x 12″ or larger. The kind you might bake lasagna in is fine. White ceramic bakeware is even better as you can see the fleas easier once trapped.
  • some tap water
  • 1/2 tsp dishwashing liquid


  1. Place the dishwashing liquid into the baking pan.
  2. Fill with about 1/2 to 3/4 inch water and no more. Avoid creating bubbles/suds when doing so.
  3. Place the baking pan on the floor in a room where you suspect flea activity.
  4. Place the desk lamp adjacent to the pan such that you can direct the light downward toward the center of the pan. We want the light to be about 6 inches from the water surface. Turn the light on and leave it on.
  5. Check the trap occasionally to ensure that the water does not evaporate. Replenish the water & soap as needed.

Here’s what happens:

If you do have fleas, they will be attracted to the light and warmth. They will travel over toward the pan and hop in.  The water will trap them and they will sink in the water due to the soap which breaks the surface tension and causes them to sink. Without soap they will float and may eventually escape.

If fleas are present, you will catch some in anywhere from 24 to 48 hours.

Paul originally provided the directions above in this forum post.  (Note: I’ve lightly edited Paul’s directions.)

How to get rid of fleas

Always be sure you confirm the pest before you start treatment.  Keep in mind spot treatments for household dogs and cats (if you have any) may play an important role in eliminating fleas from your home, but may not do the whole job.

You may want to involve a pest management professional.

If you would like to self-treat for fleas, the University of Kentucky has a helpful factsheet on DIY flea treatment.  UC Davis has some tips on this also in their factsheet on fleas.

You can purchase flea treatment products from pest control firms or online (for example, DoMyOwnPestControl’s product page on indoor flea treatment), but be sure to follow all label instructions closely, and do your research on safe and effective treatment methods before you attempt to apply pesticides yourself.

British bed bug expert Bedbugger forums regular David Cain provides instructions on a DIY and pesticide-free solution to fleas in this forum post.  It involves only baking soda or carpet cleaning powder.

David writes,

Normally unless its literally hopping alive with fleas I would simply suggest using “Shake n’ Vac” [UK powdered carpet freshener marketed by SC Johnson] or a fine powder such as baking soda. The way it is used is as follows, treat the cat with flea treatment. Remove pets and anyone who may have dust issues from the home and sprinkle the dust over the floor so that it has a fine but even coating. Then take a torch or flashlight and zig-zag the beam across the floors covering all areas. Leave the property alone for 1 hour then repeat the use of the flashlight and wait 15 minutes. Then simply clean the dust up and use a plug in flea trap for ongoing monitoring.

Its an incredibly efficient way to physically remove fleas from an area as it relies purely on their physical removal rather than chemical action. The light causes them to jump and they get caught up in the fine dust making them easier to suck away in the cleaner.

Paul Bello (again in this Bedbugger forum post) has additional tips on how to eliminate fleas:

Numerous fleas may be removed immediately via thorough vacuuming and it is possible to remediate a flea population with repetitive vacuuming and/or carpet cleaning in combination with addressing the flea source be it pet or vertebrate pest. If pets are present it is important that the pets are inspected and treated suitably for fleas and that all areas where the pets may rest or sleep are inspected and treated as well. This is often problematic with cats because they may sleep in many areas of the home which may be difficult to locate or identify. Various chemical-free type powders may be used to treat for fleas as well but these powders work relatively slowly when compared to more traditional type insecticide products.

Thanks to Paul and David for their contributions to the information above!

Got suggestions for improving this FAQ?  Have flea photos you want to share?  Please comment below!

Oh and, before someone asks,

No posts for a month and then you write about fleas?!?

I know, it’s been quiet around here.

Thanks for your patience and I hope we’re able to give you a lot more to read from now on.


Please note: the links to DoMyOwnPestControl.com and Amazon.com above are affiliate links.  If ou purchase through these links (or certain other links and banners on the site), a small portion of your purchase goes to support the running of Bedbugger.com.  Please read our disclosure policy for more.

Image credits:

“Scanning Electron Micrograph of a Flea.” Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) / Janice Carr (License: public domain/US Gov.; source.)

“flea.” Credit: used with explicit permission of anonymous Bedbugger.com forum user.

“Dog Flea,” and “Cat Flea Full of Human Blood.” Credit: iStockphoto.com.


1 nobugsonme November 9, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Added to the FAQs (under “How to determine if you have bed bugs”) and the Bedbugger Forum’s alternate list of FAQs.

2 NotSoSnug November 9, 2012 at 8:22 pm

@NoBugs: Do you need to change this site to BugsThatBite? Quick grab the domain!

I had fleas in my wool carpet when I was a university teen, thanks to a neighbour’s cat that visited a few times. Compared to my experience with bedbugs, the fleas would bite any old time they liked during lighted hours, but the bedbugs bit in the dark during deepest sleep. In the case of the fleas, the infestation was not numerous, and they lived in the carpet so bit on my lower legs mostly. I even noticed the flea itself from time to time with their distinctively odd vertical shape, alerted by the sting of the bite. They weren’t bashful about making themselves known. The bedbugs, on the other hand, probably existed in the 100s during that infestation, and still I didn’t notice for months and even then by complete chance one early dawn, even though they had bitten me pretty well everywhere on my body. The fleas soon died out as the cat didn’t replenish the stock. The bedbugs,well that’s another story.

And then there was the rodent lice infestation…

3 CarpathianPeasant November 9, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Evidently the weather was survivable except in a few sad instances. That’s good to know.

4 BedBugsInBrooklyn November 11, 2012 at 8:12 pm

Hi – this isn’t really the place for this, but can someone tell me how to make an account for the forums? When I try to post it tells me to “log in,” but I don’t have an account yet, and there isn’t a link there for me to make one. Thanks!

5 nobugsonme November 11, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Hi Bedbugsinbrooklyn,

If you go to the forums page, in the right sidebar, you get the option to “register” or “log in”. Register is the option you want.

Here’s a direct link: http://bedbugger.com/forum/register.php

Once registered (your password comes via email), you can log in via the right sidebar also.
Note your account will work here on the blog end of the site also.

If you have trouble, please email me via the contact form:

6 Winston O Buggy November 14, 2012 at 9:29 am

Some times folks can pick up fleas from areas frequented by cats and not know it like in basements, laundry rooms, alleys and even although rare a restaurant with cats.

7 nobugsonme November 15, 2012 at 10:22 am

Thanks, Winston! I will get that into the FAQ.

8 nobugsonme November 15, 2012 at 10:23 am

Hi CP,
Yes, things are still rough in the NY/NJ area. I was lucky but a lot of people were not.

9 nobugsonme November 15, 2012 at 10:28 am

NoTSoSnug– you’ve had bad luck. I hope that life post-bed bugs has been pest-free.

10 NotSoSnug November 18, 2012 at 2:01 am

@NoBugs: Joy, joy almost 5 years BB free! Apart from lots of spiders about due to living in a semi rural cabin I am pestless. Happily, I have always been comfortable with spiders.

I’m glad you made it through Sandy intact!

11 Richmond Pest Exterminator November 26, 2012 at 12:45 am

Bedbugs should never be mistaken with fleas because they’ve totally different forms. Bedbugs are more flattened, oval and a bit hairy and has brown color, while fleas are more circular and has black color. Fleas are more aggressive and leaps from one place to another very quickly. Yes they both bite, but they leave different bite marks.

12 nobugsonme November 26, 2012 at 12:31 pm


Your comment comes across as a bit patronizing and suggests you don’t interact with a lot of customers who aren’t sure what’s biting them.

Obviously once one sees a flea, they can’t be mistaken for bed bugs. But people often don’t see what is biting them right away.

I disagree with your comment that fleas and bed bugs leave “different bite marks”. You cannot diagnose bed bugs from bite reactions and others have found that sometimes flea bites and bed bug bites can look similar.

13 nobugsonme November 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm

@NotSoSnug So glad to hear you’re still bed bug free!!!

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