An interview with Susan E. Little, DVM, PhD, Diplomate EVPC (professor and Krull-Ewing Endowed chair in Veterinary Parasitology at Oklahoma State University), elicited some interesting information about the current bed bug epidemic in the U.S.
Bed bugs haven’t been a problem in this country for over 50 years, but they remained prevalent in other locations throughout the world, including Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.
However, bed bugs are again turning up across the U.S. in a wide variety of locations, including:
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According to Dr. Little, the problem is thought to be a combination of:
- Increased travel, especially internationally
- Growing resistance to pesticides
- The move away from using ‘broadcast’ pesticides (sprays and bombs) in households, leaving areas of homes (primarily bedrooms) where bed bugs proliferate pesticide-free
If you suspect the source of your pet’s itching might be bed bugs, the first things you should carefully inspect are the mattresses, box springs, bed frames and the areas around the beds in your home.
Then widen your search to include other areas of the bedrooms, including around baseboards, in corners, cracks, crevices and similar hiding places. Look for dark staining or speckling. Bed bug droppings look similar to flea dirt. Also look for eggs and molted skin that has dropped off.
As Dr. Little points out in her interview:
“Bed bugs are really a human problem that also happen to affect the pets that live in the home. As veterinarians, clients may come to us with a bed bug problem and we need to be able to help them, but the pets are not the source of the infestation or the only host sustaining the bed bugs in that home.”
To most people, there is something especially unsettling about bed bugs.
The idea the little blood suckers are hanging out, invisible, in your mattress or bedding, waiting for you to doze off so they can swarm over you, biting you dozens or even hundreds times while you sleep, can be downright disturbing.
According to this short but dramatic National Geographic video on bed bugs, the little beasts deliver both an anesthetic and an anti-coagulant when they bite a host. The purpose of the anesthetic is so you won’t awaken from the bite; the anti-coagulant guarantees your blood will flow freely so the bed bug gets a good meal.
The Common Bed Bug, Cimex Lectularius
The common bed bug is a small, flat, brown-colored insect that feeds exclusively on the blood of animals. Cimex lectularius is the species of bed bug best adapted to living with humans.
There are other bed bug species, but they prefer to feed on wild hosts, in particular bats and birds.
Adult bed bugs are less than a quarter inch long and are often mistaken for ticks or cockroaches. The younger insects are smaller and lighter than the adults.
Bed bugs can’t fly, but they can move quickly across flat surfaces.
During their lifetime, female insects lay hundreds of tiny eggs the size of a speck of dust. The eggs are sticky and adhere to surfaces. When the eggs hatch, the offspring, called nymphs, are no bigger than a pinhead. They will molt five times while they mature, and they require a meal (blood) between each shedding.
If the temperature stays around 70 – 80°F, a nymph can grow to adulthood in about a month and produce at least three generations each year. If the temperature is cooler or the insect has less access to a host, it will take longer to mature.
Bed bugs are incredibly durable. Immature insects can go months without a meal; adults can live for over a year without food.
Cimex lectularius prefers humans to feed on, but in the absence of their preferred host, these bugs will go after other warm-blooded animals, including your birds, cats, dogs and rodents.
Do Bed Bugs Carry Disease?
This is a common concern, but although these parasites can carry pathogens, it is unlikely they will be transmitted to their hosts.
The primary physical complaint with bed bugs is itching and inflammation at the site of the bite. However, if the infestation is significant, a person’s quality of life can be dramatically affected due to discomfort from the bites, insomnia, anxiety, and/or embarrassment.
It’s important to realize bed bugs are extremely transportable and resilient. They can arrive home in your luggage after a vacation; they can also find their way to your apartment or condo from another unit in your building. Since these parasites feed on warm-blooded animals, especially humans, they proliferate wherever there are hosts. Consequently, they are found just as often in immaculate environments as in unclean ones.
Insect repellents used to prevent or kill mosquitoes and ticks aren’t effective against bed bugs. Neither wearing insect repellent to bed nor sleeping with the lights on is a solution.
How Do I Know If My Pet Has a Bed Bug Bite or Some Other Insect Bite?
Unfortunately, it’s not all that easy to tell.
Because bed bugs resemble other pet pests, as do their bites, the best way to determine if the problem is bed bugs is to look for telltale signs of the insects yourself, or hire a professional to inspect your home.
Bed bug bites will cause itching and a raised area of skin at the site of the bite, much like most other insect bites. Only in cases of very heavy infestation will anemia develop in either humans or pets.
There are no specific tests your veterinarian can run to distinguish a bed bug bite from other insect bites. However, if both you and your pet are being bitten, especially during the night, there’s a good chance it’s bed bugs. Unlike fleas, which tend to bite humans on the lower legs, ankles and feet, bed bug bites are usually found on the torso or upper body.
It’s possible to mistake a bed bug for a tick, but bed bugs don’t stay attached as long as ticks do. They bite, feed for a few minutes and then go elsewhere to digest their meal.
As is the case with humans, unless the infestation is significant, there’s no indication your pet will suffer from more than some itching and sleeplessness. Bed bugs are not known to transmit disease to pets like some other parasites. However, you do want to insure your pet doesn’t scratch any bite to the point of infection.
I Think I Have a Bed Bug Problem. What Now?
Don’t try to solve the problem yourself unless you happen to be an expert in bed bugs and pesticides.
Contact a local licensed pest control company with experience with bed bugs. They will have information on the bed bug situation in your area, including what types of pesticides are proving effective, as well as toxicity concerns. They will also know where and how to look for the insects, and should be expert at recognizing bed bug droppings, eggs, molted skin and other residue.
Depending on where you live, the company you call might use bed bug sniffing dogs.
Many conventional pesticide treatments are toxic to you and your pets, especially if applied incorrectly. Most are not recommended for use directly on either mattresses or bedding. That’s why it’s important to hire an expert to help you resolve the problem.
Some pest control companies now offer “greener” options that include essential oil derivatives (including cedar oil) that are much safer for you and your pets than conventional pesticides.
If you’re unsure about a pest control company’s level of expertise concerning toxic pesticides or their ability to provide less toxic alternatives, or if you just want a second opinion before deciding on a course of action, your integrative/holistic vet will be a good resource for how to best keep your pet safe while the insects are being eradicated.
If your bed bug infestation is small and you’d prefer not to involve a pest control company, there are a few things you can try yourself, including:
- A do-it-yourself bed bug detector.
- Treat your mattress and box spring with a natural bed bug-killing dust, safe for humans and pets. Then encase mattresses, box springs and pillows in good-quality bug proof covers. These covers will keep existing bed bugs from getting at you, and will prevent new bugs from taking up residence in your bed. It’s a good idea to leave the covers on for eight months. Remember, bed bugs are resilient and can live for long periods without food.
- Alternatively, if you can afford to, replace infested mattresses and box springs with new ones.
- Wash bedding several times a week or every day if necessary during an active infestation.
- Thoroughly inspect your bed frame and if you find bed bug evidence, remove it from the house away from pets and family members and treat it with the safest, most effective product available to exterminate bed bugs.
- Try a heated steam sprayer to kill bed bugs.
- Clean floors and furniture often and thoroughly, preferably with a vacuum that uses bags. Remove and dispose of the bags in sealed bags so any live bed bugs will be unable to escape into your garbage can and back into your home.