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Fleas: a veterinarian’s recommendations to fighting flea infestations

Aug 17

Categories: Blog

As the days get shorter and the nights cooler the one problem I can count on in my exam room is that when I examine my patients with a flea comb (yes, even the indoor cats and dogs) I will find evidence of fleas! The hitchhikers often leave behind telltale black debris (aka flea dirt) and what happens next is usually a shock! "FLEAS...!!!!", my pet parents say with dismay.... because we know that it is far easier to prevent a problem that to treat one. And those little bugs are just waiting to jump on a warm body and become your winter time nightmare guests.

So let's start with a few flea facts...

The flea is a hardy insect with a lifespan of 6-12 months. During that time, a pair of fleas can produce millions of offspring. There are 4 stages to the life cycle of fleas and this cycle can complete in as little as 3-4 weeks.  The adults, which we see and leave behind the flea dirt (which takes 3 hours to produce: I wonder which research assistant was given that task to complete!) spend most of their life feasting on your pets. An average flea lives 2-3 months. One flea can multiply into over 1000 fleas on your pet and in your home in just 21 days!. A female flea can then lay ~ 2000 eggs. This stage of the life cycle as the name suggests incorporates a shell which makes the eggs resistant to many environmental control products.

Now, those eggs hatch into larvae which are microscopic and spend their time in your carpets, beds, furniture, pet sleeping spots, happily munching on shed skin cells (yours or your pets) and then they form another environmentally stable stage called the pupal stage (again another casing which is protective to the flea and resistant to our efforts!). This stage can remain dormant until the right conditions are present to allow them to hatch... and viola you have an adult flea which starts the cycle all over again. Fleas can bite over 400 times a day (who did that counting?) and a female flea can consume 15 times their body weight in your pet's blood (or yours) each and every day. Great.....!!!

OK, so fleas are tough to deal with but the good news is that no pet has to live with fleas.

There are many veterinary grade products that contain insect birth control and with the correct products for your pets you can eliminate a flea problem. But, again, once the flea problem is established it can take MONTHS to get control. Far better to prevent the problem and start NOW: continue year round. Fleas will die in the outdoor environments when we have a steady week of below freezing temperatures but it only takes one day at above 60 degrees to start them looking for a host: your dog or cat!

Whether or not you see the adult fleas (cats are notorious for grooming them off their coats), they, may be there! Scratching, especially at the back at the top of the tail and around the head and face are places that we often see affected. The "flea dirt"  found on the skin (looks like coarse ground black pepper and turns brown to red when mixed with a few drops of water) signals that a flea has been there at least 3 hours ago and your pet is now the unwitting host for a family of fleas. YIKES... And,  by the way, fleas can transmit some dangerous diseases  (like Bartonella bacterial infection), cause anemia (low red cell counts) which can be life threatening and carry the intestinal parasite tapeworms, too.  If you notice white rice like segments in your pet's poop or near their rear end near the anus: your pet has tapeworms and most likely fleas! Use a flea comb regularly to aid in detection of adult fleas, flea dirt and tapeworm segments. Remember, for every flea found on your pet there are 10-100 in the environment to take its place.

You'll need to vacuum and wash your pet's bedding at least once weekly: hot water please. There are  environmental products that are safer to use than those chemical bombs and insecticides that, when you read the label, state a whole laundry list of precautionary statements for danger to you and your pets. Be careful with flea dips, too. We don't even let our professional groomer and pet care team members at Animal Health Care use these products: just too dangerous even under controlled circumstances. Too much of the same product or even using the wrong product can cause life threatening results. Cats have been killed when a dog product was used on them! Consider a professional exterminator and look into www.FleaBusters.com for safer environmental control products. And, ask your pet's veterinarian for the best products for your situation.

There are many products available for use on your pets and if what you're using, or have been using, is working to PREVENT a problem,  then great: keep using them! But once a flea PROBLEM  is identified, either by adult fleas, flea dirt, or tapeworm segments then you need to consult your veterinary health care team.  Fipronil, found in many products, both OTC and in your veterinary offices has been shown to have flea resistance! Great product but because many fleas have seen this product over the years, they have become immune to its effective use. We first heard about this last January (2012) from our veterinary colleagues in Florida - the land of the flea. They were reporting poor response to some of our previously depended upon products. So now, what to do?

Well,we have an oral prescription product called Capstar that starts to kill adult fleas within 30 minutes of administration. We have some newer and hopefully more effective products for on-animal use. We know that all pets in the household, especially the cats, need to be treated. We know that those outdoor cats also need to be treated, if you can. You may need to treat the yard immediately adjacent to your home for a barrier of protection. And stay with it, it can takes MONTHS to eradicate an infestation! And, use these products year round in NJ at least: fleas will decrease in the outdoor environment after a week of below freezing temps but it only takes one day at or near 60 degrees to bring the flea out of its shell, literally! Far better to prevent a problem than be faced with treating one, dont' you think. I know we do!

And remember, we consider FLEA: a bad 4 letter F-word....