by Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
Once considered the bastion of shady motels in crowded cities, an indicator of poor housekeeping or dirt, bed bugs have quickly become a ubiquitous pest affecting even the most steadfast lodgings and homes. After a decrease in appearances after WWII, bed bugs have come back with a vengeance since the 1990s and are again considered a major public health pest. Cleanliness or the cost of the lodging are no deterrent to these bugs, which are found in all 50 states.
What Are Bed Bugs, Exactly?
Bed bugs, also known by their scientific name Cimex lectularius L., are parasitic creatures that use blood as their sole source of nutrition. They feed on warm-blooded animals. According to the California Department of Public Health, while bed bugs prefer humans, they will feed on dogs and cats as well. Adults are 5-7 mm long, about the length of an apple seed, and are flat—a shape that is ideal for hiding in bed frames, molding, and box springs. Most bed bug bites happen at night. A bed bug will attach to its host to feed for about five minutes and then detach, meaning it is very unlikely that you will find an actual bed bug on a person or pet.
Can a Bed Bug Make Me or My Pet Ill?
Fortunately for both people and pets, bed bugs are not known to transmit disease. Some people or animals develop red welts or itchy lesions, which are often mistaken for flea or mosquito bites. So while they can cause discomfort and significant mental distress, bed bugs won’t give you or your pets diseases, though in severe cases scratching can lead to secondary skin infections. Many times people don’t notice bites at all.
How Do You Get Bed Bugs?
Bed bugs are hardy hitchhikers. Many unsuspecting travelers pick one up on the road and bring it home in their luggage, unwittingly setting up an infestation. A fed female bed bug can lay between 2-5 eggs a day, meaning one single bug in your roller-bag, gym bag, or even in your pants cuff, can lead to an infestation at home. Once an infestation is established, their propensity to hide in nooks and crannies can make them very difficult to eradicate.
According to the 2015 Bugs Without Borders Survey, the top three places where bed bugs are found are apartments, single family homes, and hotels/motels, though they are also found in dorms, nursing homes, modes of public transport, and even hospitals. They can survive temperatures from freezing to 122°F and make it several months without eating, making them good survivors in a world that doesn’t want them around.
What Are the Signs of a Bed Bug Infestation?
While it is possible to find a live bed bug on yourself or your pet, most of the time people notice secondary signs of infestation before locating a live bug. In the house, you may notice any of the following: translucent shed exoskeletons, black spots of bug droppings, or red blood stains on your bed sheets. On people or pets, you may not notice bites at all, or you may see red welts, oftentimes in a line.
Live bugs range in color from rust to bright red depending on whether or not they have recently fed. They aggregate around wood features but can hide in bed frames, box springs, papers on the floor, curtain rods, even small wallpaper creases that have pulled away from the wall. In one instance, bed bugs were even located in a man’s prosthetic leg!
How Do You Get Rid of Bed Bugs?
Because it takes so few to create an infestation, and also because they are so well dispersed in hard-to-reach places, bed bugs are notoriously difficult to eradicate. Generally, the best outcomes happen when treatment is assisted by a pest-care professional. The first step is determining where the bed bugs are located. While the bedroom is most common, bed bugs also frequently found in living rooms. Infestations can begin in one room and move to others over time.
Seventy percent of infestations are located around beds, so much of the process focuses on treating those areas. Bedding is washed in hot water, mattresses are encased in bed bug-proof covers, and bed frames are treated with both vacuuming to remove the larger adults and nymphs, and chemical treatment to kill the eggs. If bed bugs are found in other areas, such as dressers, the same process is repeated there. If it sounds time consuming or difficult, that’s because, unfortunately, it is.
Many different products are labeled for use in eradicating bed bugs. In general, foggers are not effective as they do not penetrate the areas bed bugs like to hide. Sprays that are applied directly to affected areas have the advantage of striking exactly where they need to go. Because of the variety of products on the market, it is vital to read both the label and the safety data sheet for the product, which can be found online. None of the products should be applied directly to pets. Again, professional assistance can save you a lot of headaches in that regard.
We Have Bed Bugs! Will Treating Them Hurt My Pet?
I spoke to the professionals at Corky’s Pest Control, who have lots of experience in safely eradicating bed bugs in family homes. There are many options available, depending on the severity of the infestation and the needs of the owners, from heat treatments to fumigations to chemical applications. The suggested course of treatment can vary from household to household and from company to company.
For households with dogs and cats, Corky’s most commonly uses a chemical application to affected areas, which necessitates about 4-6 hours of keeping the pet away from the house. A severe case requiring fumigation would require the entire family to be out of the home for three days. They also stressed that certain pets, such as birds and reptiles, can have different sensitivities to environmental pesticides, so it’s vital to ensure the treatment you select is safe for your specific menagerie.
If you are dealing with bed bugs, take a deep breath; you’re not alone. With a little elbow grease, you can return your house to being in a bed bug-free state.