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Miserable Little Parasites, Part 1

Every year at this time I hear from people who are inundated by fleas: Fleas in their rugs, fleas in their yards, and fleas, fleas, fleas crawling like a black carpet over the bodies of their pets. The lucky ones are concerned about the misery fleas cause their animals; the unlucky ones are getting bitten themselves.

This year, fleas are a plague. Our sandy soils and mild climate favor them, and this season’s warm Spring allowed flea breeding to begin earlier than usual, resulting in an higher than normal flea population. Worst of all, we’re stuck with these fleas until winter weather reduces their numbers. Even then, fleas will happily take up residence in our homes and keep breeding if we let them.

But we don’t have to let them! Fleas are environmental parasites that spend only a tiny fraction of their lives on our pets. Most of the time, fleas are busy breeding and laying eggs, living their busy little lives far away from our animals. Effective flea control requires us to kill fleas where they live.

On the animal:

Treating the animal is the most work for the owner and accomplishes the least to control flea populations. A flea shampoo kills every flea on your pet, but won’t stop them returning. Dips, powders, and sprays can last for a few days, but require constant reapplication, and pets hate them, particularly cats. Flea collars offer only limited effectiveness. Yes, you should treat the animal, but understand that it’s not going to solve the problem quickly or by itself.

There are a number of prescription and over-the-counter spot on flea control products. Most of these actually work, but effectiveness varies. Prescription-only products are stronger, but typically cost more and must be used under a veterinarian’s supervision. Some prescription products will also prevent heartworm infection when used monthly. The limitation of these products (OTC and prescription) is that fleas must get on your pet in order to be killed. In some years, there are so many fleas that killing the few who happen to be on your pet amounts to a drop in the bucket. Over time, spot on products can do a great job; just don’t expect them to eliminate the hordes of end-of-season fleas with a couple of applications.

Oral flea-killers are also available by prescription. These are often compounded with heartworm medications for monthly dosage. Some act by rendering fleas sterile after they bite, so they won’t help when you’re up against 10,000 active adult fleas. Other products kill biting fleas for a month after administration. The problem: Fleas have to bite for these drugs to work, and that’s no fun. Circumstances vary and what works for one patient may not be effective for another. Talk to your veterinarian to decide what’s best for you and your pet.

Environmental Control

This is where your efforts pay off. For every flea on your pet there are at least 50 in the environment. Focus on the fifty, not the one. BE LAZY: do things that kill lots of fleas quickly and don’t require constant repetition.

In the home: Fleas spend most of their time in places where pets go and people don’t. Use a premise spray that contains an insect growth regulator (IGR). These products contain insecticides to kill adult fleas and non-toxic flea hormones (IGRs) to kill eggs and larvae. Apply the 95-5 rule: 95% of the fleas will be in 5% of the area. Locate and treat that area. Fleas live in places frequented by your pets, like bedding and favorite resting places. Use a pump spray to focus the product where it’s needed – where fleas live - and not where you live.

In the yard: Insecticides must only be used where necessary, when necessary and only while carefully following the label instructions. The same products that kill fleas also kill fish and butterflies, so don’t use them in environmentally sensitive areas. That said, there are no fish or butterflies under your porch where the cats hang out and that’s where the fleas are hiding. Apply the same 95-5 rule; use an IGR so you don’t have to apply the stuff again and again. Yard and kennel sprays are available in easy to use, hose-sprayer packages for quick, controlled application. Plant pennyroyal (mentha pulegium), a pretty little herb that contains a natural insecticidal oil, to help repel fleas next year.

A carefully considered program of animal treatment and environmental control will quickly and easily allow you to eliminate flea problems this year and prevent them in the future.

Fleas have been a topic of concern for a long, long time. This drawing of a flea was published in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia in 1665.


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