Unfortunately, the summer is over. Though these past fall days have been lovely, the change of the season brings a returning pest-the flea. The worst time of the year for this hungry parasite is autumn. Cool mornings and evenings convey a wake-up call to the flea: Feed! Our furry friends and possibly ourselves are on the menu. Fleas are blood sucking parasites so the bite of the flea can bring sores, scratching and sensitivity.
The flea is a laterally compressed, one mm long insect. There are four life stages-egg, pupa, larva and adult. This is important for control as we’ll see later. Of those stages, just one, the adult is spent on the host animal. The other three occur in the environment, i.e., your home or yard. Adult fleas live for approximately four months, but flea eggs can live for up to eleven months. This is bad news as fleas persist, in one stage or another, for a very long time. Also, the immature stages are really resistant to tough conditions and it takes several hard frosts to kill them. It’s possible for the female flea to lay as many as twenty thousand eggs in her lifetime. If fifty percent of those are also female, then they lay twenty thousand more. Do the math… Flea eggs exhibit positive geotropism. They burrow downwards. Into the nap of your carpet, between the cracks in wood floors, under leaves in the yard. Again, this is important knowledge for flea control.
Clinical signs of flea infestation vary with each pet. Most cats can be crawling with fleas and show no ill effects. Occasionally, cats will develop flea allergies. In that case, pinpoint rashes-so called miliary dermatitis (named because the sores resemble millet seeds) can appear around the head and neck area and also around the tail base. These cats need treatment beyond simple flea control to make them comfortable. Vets might use steroids and antibiotics to clear up the rash. Dogs usually don’t take fleas in stride. Even in small numbers, flea bites cause dogs to be itchy and irritated. Reactions to bites vary from mild irritation with concomitant “corn-cobbing” type biting to hot spots or wide spread skin inflammation. On dogs, fleas live below the belt, that is, from the waist down. So if you are trying to find fleas on your dog, then look down his back or between his rear legs. Vets use fine toothed combs which trap anything caught between the hair to find fleas. At home, owners can brush or comb their pets on a white sheet or towel and look for fleas or black specks to fall out. Fleas are blood sucking parasites so their feces are composed of dried blood and will run red if wetted with water. This is a handy way to tell if your pet has or has had fleas. Look for flea dirt.
Fortunately, flea control has been revolutionized with the advent of the spot-on topical products. Gone are the days of the flea baths, dips, mousses, powders and sprays. The newer topicals, such as Revolution, Advantage and Frontline are applied monthly, usually between the shoulder blades, and leave a micro thin coating of product on the animal’s skin. In general, it’s a good idea not to bathe an animal too frequently when using these topicals as they can be stripped off by shampoos. Also, to be effective, a spot-on topical must be used in conjunction with environmental control. Recall that only one life stage of the flea is spent on the pet. So if the home and yard is not treated as well, then the sheer number of emergent new fleas will overwhelm the treatment on the pet.
Because eggs burrow, it’s important to apply parasiticidal sprays to the right places. In the home, direct hand held sprays around baseboards, under table and chairs, around and under cushions on furniture. And precede spraying with a terrific vacuum cleaning job. This accomplishes two things: it decreases the adult population and also raises eggs, which have burrowed down into the carpet to the upper level of the nap so sprays will come in contact with them. Toss out the vacuum cleaner bag so adults don’t just jump out and re-infest your home. To maximize effectiveness, sprays should contain an insect growth regulator which will prevent flea eggs from hatching. Usually, sprays need to be repeated every twenty one days until an infestation is under control. Remember too, wash all pets’ bedding in the hottest water possible to eliminate eggs. Yard control is also best accomplished with spraying, and be sure to use a product that is not deactivated by sunlight. Environmental products usually can be purchased at a good hardware or farm store, and reliable flea control products should always be bought through a veterinarian.
Fleas are prolific pests which are a nuisance this time of year. Good luck in your battle against them!
Celeste Conn, VMD
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