Fleas…Just saying the word inspires itching of the skin and a shiver up the spine. These little annoying creatures can cause a huge amount of discomfort for us and our pets, and they can be a source of allergies and infections with parasites as well.
There are over 1900 flea species in the world. Pet owners are concerned with only one: Ctenocephalides felis, the cat flea. This is the flea that we find on our pets (cats, dogs, rabbits, and other species) in 99.9% of cases and in order to understand how to control the damage caused by this tiny little animal, you should learn all you can about it.
The first thing to realize is that it is a MYTH that all dogs and cats with fleas are itchy! They are only very itchy if they have an allergy to the flea’s saliva (flea allergy dermatitis). We see animals in frequently in the spring and fall for their physical exams and we find fleas randomly on their exams! The owners are always shocked because they aren’t overly itchy! They are secretive little bugs that can pop up out of nowhere to cause trouble! Half of the time even we have trouble in the exam room finding a live adult flea as they are fast and hate light! What we DO almost always find is something called “flea dirt” which is essentially just “flea poop”. It looks like dirt or little pepper flakes throughout your dog’s coat. To tell if this is truly flea dirt versus just plain old regular dirt, take a piece or two of it and put it on a white piece of paper. Wet your finger and smear it over the dirt. If it leaves a rust/red/pink colored mark or line on the paper…it’s FLEA POOP (because really, when you think about it, flea poop is just dried up blood!). If it doesn’t, it’s just regular dirt (not very exciting…).
What Trouble Can Fleas Cause?
Don’t underestimate these little guys! They may be small but they can cause all kinds of issues in us and our pets, including low red blood cell counts, allergies, parasites, and even death in severe cases! They can actually spread a specific type of intestinal tape worm to your pet, which is kind of weird to think about, but true!
Why are They so Hard to Kill?
Fleas have a very strong exoskeleton, so they are very hard to “squish” when you find them. They are also masters of infecting their environment! The flea lifecycle is such that an adult female flea will bite its host MANY times to drink blood and lay eggs on your pet which will drop off into the environment which will hatch and mature through larval stages into an adult. This little bugger will jump right back on your pet (or even YOU in some cases) and repeat the cycle. Because of this, as you might imagine, for every flea that you SEE on your pet…there are THOUSANDS of eggs and larvae in the environment that you can’t see waiting to mature into an adult in need of a blood meal.
How Do You Effectively Clear a Flea Infestation?
So, knowing this lifecycle, treating the environment become just as important (if not MORE important) than treating the fleas physically on your pet. To do this we used to have to spray chemicals all over the house and furniture, but this has changed in recent years with the development of effective medications such as Revolution and Advantage Multi. These are MEDICATIONS, not harsh pesticides. Too many times people will refuse to use these medications on their pets for fear that it may harm them. My beautiful old German Shepherd cross lived to the ripe old age of 16 years and had Revolution monthly in the summer since she was 5 years old. She NEVER had any medical issue associated with Revolution, and I would never use something on my own pet that would harm them (or any of my client’s pets)! The products to stay away from are the flea treatments you can get in Pet Stores or Walmart without a doctor’s prescription. These are not only very harsh, but they more often than not DO NOT work as they don’t treat the environment, only the fleas on your pet. On top of that, the majority of them are absolutely DEADLY for cats. We have had owners put them on their dogs only for their cat to pass by, get some on their fur, lick it and start to tremmor and seizure. In addition they are more likely to cause severe skin irritation/burns. It’s just not worth it!
Flea collars are USELESS…with one exception: cut them up and put them in your vacuum canister/bag to kill any of the larvae/eggs as you suck them up when you are vacuuming. Not only are these straight up pesticides that you are putting on your pet’s skin (and they are often very irritating to the skin), they will not treat fleas in the environment or anywhere on your pet OTHER than around their neck…they will still have fleas on their backs and legs etc.
Back to Revolution and Advantage Multi…These medications are THE BEST by far for treating flea infestations because they treat the fleas on your pet AND they take care of the fleas in the environment. No product on the market can kill eggs, but these products get into your pet’s skin cells. The larvae in the environment will feed on your pet’s dead skin cells containing the medication and they will DIE BEFORE getting a chance to mature into an adult flea and jump back onto your pet/you. This, along with vacuuming like your life depended on it AND washing all bedding in hot soapy water, is your best defense against fleas. Usually, using this triad, you can completely rid your pet and your entire house of fleas within 3 months without the need to use chemical sprays, etc.
Another product that is out there that may be useful is called Diatomatious Earth. This natural alternative is a powder made of ground up fossilized “diatoms” which are a type of hard-shelled algae. It is known as a “mecianical insecticide” because the ground up microscopic pieces of diatom are very sharp, and as fleas or other parasites with a chitinous shell crawl through it they get cut up into pieces rendering them…well…dead! The pieces are so small that they are not sharp to us or our pets, but they have been reported to be good at killing fleas and ticks. The idea is to sprinkle some of this onto the bedding/carpet/couches that they spend time on to kill insects in the environment. It has also been reported by some to work topically on your dog’s coat, however, due to the sharp nature of the granules, I feel that this would be irritating for them and advise against it. It is also reported to be ok for pets and people to ingest it. Again, due to the sharp nature I would not advise this either. NEVER let your pet inhale it as it can cause really damaging irritation to the lungs!
BOTTOM LINE: If you think your pet may have fleas, come in to see us (your friendly neighbourhood vet) to confirm things, and get an effective, safe medication to take care of the problem! We are always happy to see you and your pet to help you out or take a phone call if you are not sure and you have questions. AND…PREVENTION IS THE KEY! Please make sure to have your pet on flea medications at least over the summer months (particularly the spring and fall) to prevent this from even being an issue to begin with!
Dr. Christine Nawas, BSc, DVM
(c) Erin Mills Pet Hospital