If your dog or cat is scratching frantically or biting at his skin, as one of mine has been doing the past couple of days, chances are he has had a run-in with a flea. The recent warm weather is just right for fleas to flourish, emerging from their egg and larval stages and developing into full-fledged bloodsuckers, ready to feast on your pet.
Fleas live in the environment, hopping onto your pet when they need a meal and snuggling back into your carpet or other furnishings when they’re done. A flea bite, although tiny, injects substances into an animal’s skin that cause severe itching. The bite of a single flea can cause a super-sensitive dog or cat to go into a frenzy of scratching and biting, trying to relieve the itch.
Just as bad, fleas are an intermediate host for tapeworms in dogs and cats. When a pet ingests a flea that is carrying an intermediate stage of the tapeworm, he develops the worms himself. Because tapeworms can be transmitted to humans, flea control is a public health issue. Fleas also transmit diseases to cats such as mycoplasma, which causes anemia, and bartonella, the source of “cat-scratch disease” in humans.
In the bad old days, getting rid of fleas required constant spraying, bathing and dipping of the dog, at the same time treating the home and yard. Bathe, spray, repeat was the mantra.
Preventing fleas and other external and internal parasites is a lot easier these days. Several products are available from veterinarians that not only manage the flea problem but also prevent heartworms, roundworms and other intestinal parasites, and ear mites. Ticks are not a serious problem in Lake Forest, but if your dog goes hiking with you in wilderness areas, he can certainly be exposed to them and should be protected by a product that contains fipronil such as the topical spot-on Frontline.
What’s the most important thing to know about flea control? I asked Dr. Flea, er, Michael Dryden, DVM, professor of veterinary parasitology at Kansas State University, what advice he gives pet owners about flea control.
- Treat all dogs and cats in the household every 30 days with one of the broad-spectrum parasiticides. If for some reason you can’t treat all your pets, ask your veterinarian to recommend an insect growth regulator (IGR) that you can use to treat your home twice a year so eggs and larvae don’t develop in the house.
- Use dog products on dogs and cat products on cats. The flea-treatment products made for dogs are toxic and sometimes deadly to cats.
- Apply spot-on flea treatment where the pet can’t lick it off. Dryden likes to put it on the middle of the neck, just behind the ears.
- Discourage other flea-bearing animals from entering your yard. Don’t leave out pet food that might attract raccoons, possums and feral cats, all of which carry fleas, and block off elevated decks with latticework or some other barrier so those animals can’t shed flea eggs there.
- If you think there are fleas in your home, it’s also a good idea to vacuum thoroughly, including behind furniture and beneath sofa cushions, and to launder bedding (yours and the pet’s) in hot water to kill flea eggs and larvae.
- The flea-control products available now are fast-acting and effective when used correctly, but it still takes a certain amount of time before your home and pets are fully flea-free. There can be a three to four month lag between the time you begin treatment and the time you can expect to have few or no fleas. One way or another, new fleas will always enter your home, but the goal is to make them unable to reproduce and to have ongoing protection for your pet.