Spillover of parasites at the domestic animal - wildlife interface is a pervasive threat to animal health. Cat and dog fleas ( Ctenocephalides felis and C. canis) are among the world’s most invasive and economically important ectoparasites. Although both species are presumed to infest a diversity of host species across the globe, knowledge on their distributions in wildlife is poor. We built a global dataset of wild mammal host associations for cat and dog fleas, and used Bayesian hierarchical models to identify traits that predict wildlife infestation probability. We complemented this by calculating functional-phylogenetic host specificity to assess whether fleas are restricted to hosts with similar evolutionary histories, diet or habitat niches.
Over 130 wildlife species have been found to harbour cat fleas, representing nearly 20% of all mammal species sampled for fleas. Phylogenetic models indicate cat fleas are capable of infesting a broad diversity of wild mammal species through ecological fitting. Those that use anthropogenic habitats are at highest risk. Dog fleas, by contrast, have been recorded in 31 mammal species that are primarily restricted to certain phylogenetic clades, including canids, felids and murids. Both flea species are commonly reported infesting mammals that are feral (free-roaming cats and dogs) or introduced (red foxes, black rats and brown rats), suggesting the breakdown of barriers between wildlife and invasive reservoir species will increase spillover at the domestic animal - wildlife interface.
Our empirical evidence shows that cat fleas are incredibly host-generalist, likely exhibiting a host range that is among the broadest of all ectoparasites. Reducing wild species’ contact rates with domestic animals across natural and anthropogenic habitats, together with mitigating impacts of invasive reservoir hosts, will be crucial for reducing invasive flea infestations in wild mammals.