FIGHTING FLEA PROBLEMS

Fleas are small flightless insects. A mature flea measures up to 3mm long and are usually brown in color. They are external parasites of mammals and birds, but can also choose a human host to live on. Fleas live off the blood they consume from their hosts. They are the most common parasite found on pets. Once a flea jumps on your pet it will start feeding within minutes and it can suck blood for up to 2 1/2 hours. Female fleas can consume up to 15 times their own body weight in blood. Fleas can live on your dog or cat for almost 2 months. If a flea infestation goes undetected, your pet could develop a heartworm or tapeworm. Fleas are able to transmit the tapeworm parasite to your pet if your pet should accidentally swallow a flea during grooming. If that flea is carrying tapeworms, they could then be released into your pet’s intestinal tract. Fleas can transmit disease not only to animals but to humans as well. Some rare but dangerous diseases transmitted by fleas are murine typhus and bubonic plague.

Flea infestations can get out of control quickly. I have talked to people who have had experience in dealing with this situation and it can be very frustrating. If the fleas are not discovered and cleaned up immediately, they can easily multiply. Because of their size, they can be hard to see, so if you don’t get them all they have a chance to re-infest. Let’s lay down some facts. Fleas lay eggs in large numbers. They can lay as many as 40 to 50 a day for a 50 day period. A single female flea can produce 2,000 eggs in her lifetime. That’s a lot of fleas. They will continue to multiply and when cleaning you must be thorough and kill them all. Clean-up must be repeated several times over a 2 or 3 month period. Keep in mind, large numbers of newly developed adult fleas can remain dormant inside pupae or cocoons waiting to hatch for weeks to months. When conditions are right (a combination of heat, carbon dioxide and movement) they will emerge from these cocoons as young and hungry adult fleas, which will attack you pet.

Fleas generally prefer to host off of animals rather than humans. If you notice your pet itching uncontrollably, it may be the first sign of a flea infestation. Adult fleas are visible to the human eye and if you check your pet, you can visibly see them. Fleas can jump more than 100 times its length (vertically up to 7 inches and horizontally up to 13). That is comparable to a human jumping 250 feet vertically and 450 feet horizontally. Normally fleas will not jump from animal to animal. Most flea problems start within the pet’s environment, either in their home or in their yard. The life cycle of the flea depends on environmental conditions. Fleas thrive in warm climates. In most areas the fall is the worst season for fleas. The moisture in the fall air coupled with temperatures in the 70’s makes an ideal breeding ground for fleas. When conditions are favorable, fleas can have a life cycle of 18 to 21 days. If the weather is not ideal and there is not a host to feed on, flea larvae may remain dormant for months. Once better conditions develop the larvae will hatch. Adult fleas can live anywhere from several weeks to several months.

If you discover or suspect a flea infestation, here is some advice for ridding your pet from fleas.

Cleaning your pet:

  • Wash your pet’s bedding in hot water every couple of days. Dry it on the highest heat setting after each washing. You can take the pet bed to a dry cleaner, but make sure the drycleaner uses pet friendly chemicals.
  • Wash your pet using flea shampoo. If you prefer natural or home remedies, make a strong solution by adding a few cut lemons or two cups of rosemary leaves to hot water. Allow the mixture to cool down and use it to spray, rinse, or soak your pet
  • Purchase a flea comb. Discard the fleas by dunking the comb in a bowl of soapy water. Pay special attention around your pet’s neck and tail. Fleas are known to inhabit these areas.
  • Talk to your vet about oral or topical flea remedies. Flea collars can be very effective but can also be highly toxic to your pet. Avoid using them if possible.
  • If you prefer natural remedies, make a strong solution by adding a few cut lemons or two cups of rosemary leaves to hot water. Allow the mixture to cool down and use it to spray, rinse, or soak your pet.

Cleaning your home:

  • Vacuum your floors, carpet, upholstery, and mattresses. Tight spaces such as cracks are great hiding places for fleas, larvae, and cocoons. Use a powerful vacuum if possible one with good suction. When finished dispose of the bag immediately. If a steam cleaner is available to you. Steam cleaner all carpets and upholstery. Concentrate on areas of your home in which your pet occupies the most.  
  • Wash pet beds and bedding in hot sudsy water. Dry it at the highest heat setting. Steam clean or launder all pet bedding. The combination heat and soap is deadly to fleas in all stages of life. If the infestation is severe, consider getting rid of old bedding and buying new. You may have to repeat this procedure every couple days for a while until all signs of the infestation are gone.
  • Use chemical treatments. Aerosol sprays are recommended over foggers, as you can direct the spray under beds or other places that the foggers may be unable to reach. Choose an insecticide that contains both an adulticide (such as permethrin) that will kill adult fleas, and an insect growth regulator (such as methoprene or pyriproxyfen) that will kill the eggs, larvae, and pupae. Be sure to wear gloves when using these products, and only spray when everyone is out of the house. Do not expose yourself or your pet’s to these products until all areas have dried completely.

Cleaning your yard:

Concentrate on areas of your yard that your pet occupies the most. Pay special attention to shady and humid areas. These are areas where fleas tend to breed.  

  • Mow your lawn regularly and rake the exposed surfaces thoroughly. Fleas like to hide in tall grass. Make sure to bag the contents rather than add them to your compost pile.
  • Remove all debris, such as dead leaves and twigs, from flower beds and from under any bushes. Expose as much of the shady areas to sunlight as you can.
  • Spread cedar chips on the areas where your pet likes to lie down, under the bushes, and in flower beds.
  • Ask your gardening center about nematodes (small worms that can eat parasite eggs) and sulphur granules. You can spread both around problem areas to help remove fleas.

Flea infestations can make animals very sick. In severe infestations, fleas can consume so much of a host’s blood that the host becomes very ill. Some animals develop iron deficiency anemia, and smaller animals could even require blood transfusions. Some pets can develop severe allergies to flea bites (flea allergy dermatitis) and their skin may continue to itch even after the fleas are gone. There are two types of itching associated with fleas. The first is mild itching associated with the movement of the bugs while they are on you. The second is a much more intense itch, which occurs when an animal develops an allergy to the proteins in a flea’s saliva. This itch can cause your pet to bite or scratch to alleviate the discomfort. If animals with an allergy are left untreated, the flea bites can become infected and require extensive veterinary care.

Flea products can be costly, especially when used repeatedly over a period of time. Home remedies can be cheaper, and very effective. Be cautioned that younger, smaller, and older animals may become sick from the chemical residue these products leave behind. So use extreme caution if pets must stay in the home during clean-up.

There are several preventative products on the market or available from your vet. At the current time, I believe there is no flea vaccine available. However, there are other effective flea preventatives that can keep your pet parasite free. There are oral and topical applications which can be used monthly and medication which can be injected every 6 months. Most of these medications will not kill adult fleas, something additional must be used. Before administering any of these medications please consult with your veterinarian. Some medications or preventatives may be effective for one animal, but could be harmful to another.

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