WHAT DO BED BUGS FEED ON?

Written by: A O’Neill, Licensed Pest Control Technician

Bed bugs are notorious for their ability to only feed on and live off of human blood.  They’re able to survive without a blood meal for long periods of time, but they do need to feed every so often in order to survive and keep reproducing.

There are two main species that feed on human blood, which are Cimex lectularius and Cimex hemipterus (tropical bed bug).  But it’s the common bed bug (Cimex lectularius) that plagues our homes, hotels, offices, schools, and anywhere else people gather. 

These pests have adapted to live with humans over thousands of years, and not only do they feed on your blood, it is the warmth from your body and the carbon dioxide you breathe out when asleep that also attracts them to you. 

Close up photo of adult bed bug from side view feeding on human
Credit: Public Health Image Library publicdomainfiles.com

How Often Do Bed Bugs Feed?

Bed Bugs are photophobic and nocturnal so mainly come out to feed at night, but how often they feed depends on certain conditions, such as having regular access to a host and an ideal temperature of between 70-80ºF (21-27ºC). 

DID YOU KNOW that during a single feed, a bed bug can take up to 6 times its body weight in blood?  

If these conditions are met then bed bugs will take a blood meal from a person once every 5-10 days, and feeding can take from 3-10 minutes until satiated. 

Before they feed their bodies are flat and a rusty-brown color, and when fed their bodies become engorged and elongated and a darker red-brown color.

After their meal, these cryptic parasites crawl back to their dark harborage areas where they digest it, mate through ‘traumatic insemination’, and then lay eggs that hatch into nymphs.  

Thankfully bed bugs can neither fly nor jump but can crawl quickly to get to a host. They like to hide within a few feet of where you sleep, such as on your mattress seams, box spring, and nearby furniture, or your couch if you sleep or rest on it for long periods of time. 

Although bed bugs prefer to feed at night, there are some exceptions where they will come out during the day for a meal, such as if the infestation has grown large and they are hungry, or if a person works nights and sleeps during the day.

If you’re seeing these pests in the daytime, then call a professional pest control company because it’s likely you have a growing bed bug infestation problem. 

Do Bed Bugs Feed Every Night?

Having a bed bug bite you once every 5-10 days doesn’t sound too traumatic as a single bed bug does not feed every night. But remember there will be more than one bed bug and even a small population of them soon grows into a big infestation if left untreated. 

Unfortunately, moving to another bedroom to sleep in will only spread the infestation as they will soon find you in there too.

An infestation can contain thousands of these blood-thirsty pests which are all hungry at different times, so you can imagine how many bed bugs could be feeding on you each and every night. 

Do Bed Bug Nymphs Feed?

A newly emerged nymph (baby bed bug) is hungry when born and will seek out a blood meal immediately and feed.

Picture of Bed bug nymph feeding on human and abdomen filling with blood

Bed bug nymph, Cimex lectularius, during feeding. Baby bed bug is almost translucent and the human’s blood is visible inside the bed bug’s abdomen. Image credit: CDC/ Harvard University

A female bed bug will lay approximately 5 eggs a day (various studies have differing amounts, but it seems to be around this figure) and possibly up to 500 during her life cycle.

These eggs, which can be laid individually or in clusters, will hatch in 7-10 days (7 days under ideal conditions mentioned above) and each one is literally the size of a speck of dust (1mm) and is translucent-white making them very difficult to see with the naked eye.

The immature nymphs will molt (shed their exoskeleton) five times before they become adults, and they will reach adulthood in approximately 21 days under favorable conditions.

However, they must have a blood meal before each molt takes place.

Bed bugs cycle of life
Bed bug cycle of life from eggs to adults and molting stages.

If a blood meal is not available then they are unable to molt to the next stage so they eventually die. But these nymphs are hardy and can live for up to 4 months before feeding on their first blood meal.

How Do Bed Bugs Feed On Humans?

Bed bugs feed by piercing your skin with their elongated mouthpart known as the proboscis (or beak) and withdraw your blood up through it until they are completely engorged.  As mentioned above, this can last for between 3-10 minutes.

The proboscis becomes fully extendable when feeding and uses two stylets, one to take your blood, and the other to inject an anticoagulant and anesthetic (to thin your blood and numb your skin) so you don’t wake up and feel it biting and feeding.[1] 

When the bed bug has finished dining on you, its mouthpart simply fits back underneath its body.  

Not everyone reacts to the bites, but those that do can develop itchy, red welts that may become irritated and prone to infection if scratched and can take several weeks to heal.  

Luckily, although classed as a public health pest there is no firm confirmation that bed bugs transmit diseases. They are more of a nuisance but are associated with several conditions caused by scratching the bites and having an allergic reaction to them.[2]

Bear in mind that it is almost impossible to diagnose a welt as being from an actual bed bug bite as they look similar to other insect bites.   

Finding proof of a bed bug infestation in your home such as checking for live bugs, shed skins, and signs of bed bugs on your mattress and bed such as fecal spots are good indicators that the welts could be from bed bugs.  

Do Bed Bugs Feed On Dogs and Cats?

Do bed bugs only feed on humans?  Bed bugs’ first choice of blood is human blood as it provides them with the nutrients needed to sustain them. But if a human host is unavailable then they will scavenge and feed on other warm-blooded animals such as our pets, which includes dogs, cats, birds, and rodents.  Although this is not common. 

Animals do not carry bed bugs and bed bugs do not live in hair or fur, but they can take up residence in their bedding. 

What Do Bed Bug Bites Look Like On A Dog?

Bed bugs prefer humans as our skin is easy to access and they have not got to try and crawl through masses of dense fur, but if they do make their way through and bite your dog, then the bites will look like small red welts on areas where there is less fur, such as the belly or legs.

Just as some people find their bites itchy, so too can your pets as the bites can cause skin irritation issues if they are scratched a lot. 

How Long Can Bed Bugs Live Without Feeding?

Bed bugs are able to go without feeding for between 2 to 6 months.[3]

But what is worse is they can enter a type of hibernation called diapause for a year or possibly longer without a blood meal when the temperature drops to 55ºF (12.7ºC) or below and they do not have access to a host.

This alone makes bed bugs an extremely resilient and hard to treat pest, and one you don’t want to find in your home or feeding on you!

We have more detailed images of what bed bugs look like and pictures of bed bugs feeding and the marks left behind from their bite that you might find interesting.

Now you know what bed bugs feed on, if you suspect you have them, read How to Permanently Get Rid of Bed Bugs which gives you step-by-step guidance to getting rid of them on your own.

If you can afford it, then it’s always advisable to contact a reputable pest control company to visit your home and put together a treatment plan so you’re bed bug free as soon as possible.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3255965/

[2] https://www.epa.gov/bedbugs/bed-bugs-public-health-issue

[3] https://entomology.ca.uky.edu/ef636

I’ve been in the pest control industry helping people get rid of their unwanted pests for over 20 years, both in the UK and Canada.

As a licensed pest management professional, I’ve seen and treated just about every common household pest, insect, or rodent, you can think of. I’ve seen the damage caused when an infestation has been left too long and has become hard to get rid of.

For this reason, peststopsolutions.com was created. By having honest advice and the right guidance to hand, along with scientific evidence to back up claims, you are given information on the best eradication methods, as well as how to get rid of most pests yourself.