Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Pet Owner’s Guide To Flea Control

What are fleas?
Fleas are blood feeding insect parasites that can infest many species of mammals.  Flea infestation is one of the most common medical problems veterinarians see, and pets can suffer greatly from this condition.  Flea bites can trigger severe allergic reactions in some pets.  The intense itching caused by flea infestation causes pets to scratch and bite themselves.  This can lead to skin wounds, skin infections, and general misery for your pet.  Even if your pet is not allergic to fleabites, the parasites can carry diseases such as tapeworms and bartonellosis (or cat scratch disease).

What is a flea infestation?     
A flea infestation can refer to fleas that are on your pet and fleas in your home and on your premises.  Once fleas hop onto your pet, they begin feeding almost immediately.  Adult female fleas can lay 50 eggs per day, and these eggs fall off the pet and into the surrounding environment.  The eggs hatch into larvae, which feed on organic debris in the environment.  Favorite dwelling places for flea larvae inside the home are in and on the carpet, pet’s bedding, furniture, and baseboards.  Outside the home, flea larvae can be found in areas where flea-infested animals frequent, particularly shady places and places where wild animals might find shelter (e.g., under the house).  Flea larvae develop into pupae (cocoon form), which hatch into adult fleas after a period of days to weeks.  In a flea infestation, fully 95% of the fleas are in these developmental stages, and only 5% are the adult fleas on your pets.

What does it mean to see a flea on my pet?

If 95% of the fleas are in developmental stages, then for every 1 flea you see on your pet, there are 19 fleas in your home in developmental stages to take its place! 

How do animals become infested with fleas? 
Fleas are very successful parasites.  They are susceptible to temperature extremes, but they can survive for long periods of time under ideal conditions, and they can even become dormant for many months if no hosts are available.  If your pet spends time outside, in kennels, or around other animals, the risk of picking up fleas increases.  However, even a completely indoor pet can become infested with fleas. Think about it. The owners, and children are going in and out of the home regularly. Because the temperature and humidity conditions inside your home are fairly stable, fleas can live there with relative ease.  In this way, fleas can live in colder regions of the country, surviving climate conditions that would otherwise be intolerable.  Once they have entered a house, fleas can multiply very well under favorable year-round conditions, adding to the challenge of controlling fleas in a home environment.

How can I tell if my pet has fleas?  

Flea Dirt

Fleas may not be easily visible on your pet. If an infestation is severe, though, you may see fleas on the animal’s skin, or you may find them by combing your pet with a flea comb.  Adult fleas are the easiest stage of the parasite to see, but they represent less than 5% of an infestation.  The other stages (eggs, larvae, and pupae) are smaller and more difficult to find.  You may also find small black or brown specks on your pet’s skin or bedding.  These specks look like tiny coffee grounds and are commonly called “flea dirt.”  Flea dirt is the feces of adult fleas and is actually the digested blood of the host.  When the dark particles get wet, the red color returns and may help with identification.  Some pets are allergic to fleas and can be extremely itchy from a single fleabite; other pets may experience mild itching or none at all.  Just because your pet isn’t scratching doesn’t mean there are no fleas. Just because your pet is itching, it doesn't mean your pet has fleas.  When in doubt, consult your veterinarian.

How can I treat the problem?

If you believe your pet is infested with fleas, begin with a trip to your veterinarian.  Your pet may have a skin infection or other problem that needs attention.  After your pet has been examined, your veterinarian can recommend an effective product that you can use to kill fleas.  Some products specifically target adult fleas; other products prevent the development of eggs; and still other products kill eggs, larvae, and adult fleas.  Regardless of what product is used, multiple treatments are generally required to eliminate an infestation.  If you have several pets in your home, each animal should be treated with an appropriate product.  Although fleas have been around for a long time, there are many products available today that can effectively eliminate them.  Ask your veterinarian about the best way to control fleas.

Why might I still see fleas? 

Today’s topical flea treatments available from veterinarians provide excellent flea killing activity, for a full month with many products.  Although fleas begin to be killed within hours, they are not killed immediately.  When your home or areas where your pet goes outside are heavily infested with fleas, new fleas can constantly jump onto your pet.  These fleas will be killed, but it can appear that the product is not working because the flea burden is so severe.  If the source of fleas is in the home, regular use of topical products that provide month-long killing on all dogs and cats in the home is essential and effective.  If the source is outside, then some likely areas, such as dog parks, should be avoided.  The time of year when the flea burden is greatest varies by geography, so your veterinarian and the veterinary staffs are the best source for recommending flea control strategies that work best in your specific locale.

The Providence Veterinary Hospital Blog is a publication of  Peter Herman, VMD, at the Providence Veterinary Hospital, 2400 Providence Ave. in Chester, PA.  Contact Dr. Herman at 610-872-4000 or visit us at

1 comment:

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