Matie researcher wants more cat fleas

Stellenbosch University researcher, Dr Luther van der Mescht, collecting fleas for his research project, assisted by his wife, Aileen Thompson. Picture: Engela Duvenage

Most people visit their local animal welfare association only when they want to adopt a new kitten or puppy. Not Dr Luther van der Mescht. He goes to visit in search of fleas. To be precise, cat fleas. He is working on a comprehensive study of the different species found on South African dogs and cats.

Worldwide, cat fleas (Ctenocephalides felis felis) are the most commonly found fleas plaguing pets. Despite their name, these little insects also occur on dogs. Animals covered with these fleas often suffer from tapeworms over time, and can become quite emaciated in the process.

Dr Van der Mescht hopes to be able to determine which species are all found in South Africa. He will be using microscope and genetic techniques to study the fleas that he collects. Such information can ultimately be valuable when trying to ensure that the right types of flea repellents are used in different regions.

“It is very difficult to identify with the naked eye, which species of 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,” says Dr Van der Mescht. “The previous thorough survey on the topic was done in the 1970s.”

His research project is funded by the Claude Leon Foundation.

Dr Van der Mescht works closely with parasitologist, Professor Sonja Matthee, of the Stellenbosch University (SU) Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology, who concentrates on parasites such as fleas and ticks, and evolutionary biologist, Professor Conrad Matthee, from the SU Department of Plant and Zoology.

According to Dr Van der Mescht, 20 animal welfare organisations and private veterinarians across the country are already involved in his studies. They are helping him to collect enough fleas from a diversity of regions so that he can identify and genetically study them.

Members of the public who are interested in helping his research can send flea samples collected from their cats and dogs to Dr Van der Mescht until the end of April.

This is when the typical summer flea season ends. It is best to store dead insects in a small container of ethanol.

For more information about how to do so, contact Dr Van der Mescht at luthervdm@sun.ac.za