Flea season always seems to begin in late summer and persist throughout the fall. Some years are worse than other, but what is the owner of a tormented dog to do?
There are several kinds of fleas, and oddly enough the one that bothers domestic dogs (and cats) is the cat flea. Controlling these pests can be a big percentage of your yearly pet care budget. What products should you choose?
Fleas are an insect, but one with no wings. They have strong legs muscles and can jump. Remember the old flea circus jokes? They really can make huge leaps. This animal that is less than an eighth of an inch long can make vertical jumps of 8 inches (64 times its body length). If that’s not amazing enough, they can move forward 16 inches on a jump.
Flea bites irritate a dog’s skin. Like many insects that suck blood they inject saliva as they feed. Some dogs are more allergic to this than others, and can develop huge sores. This can be from scratching the sites until they are raw as well as an allergic reaction. Infection is always possible.
If the infestation in your home becomes serious, the fleas will begin to bite you. These bites will usually be on your legs or ankles, and will be small, red itchy dots.
One of the more serious side effects of fleas is that they are part of the life cycle of the tapeworm. If your pet swallows an infected flea (while biting at the insects), then the dog can develop tapeworm. Tapeworm is a nasty parasite that can grow to 40 feet in the digestive system and sap your dog’s strength. Humans can develop tapeworms too, if a flea is accidentally ingested. It is important to treat tapeworm as soon as possible. If you see what appear to be small grains of rice in the dog’s excrement, visit your vet. Those are tapeworm larvae. Controlling fleas will break the life cycle of the tapeworm before it ever gets started.
Female fleas lay eggs within two days of their first blood meal. In a few more days she will be consuming many times her weight in blood and laying two dozen eggs a day. The eggs are very slippery, sometimes called “teflon beads, ” and fall off the host animal. This spreads flea eggs throughout the dog’s environment... usually your home. They hatch into larvae in two to four days. They larvae die if they get too dry or too hot. But most homes in late summer provide them with an ideal environment of 75-85 degrees with a high humidity level.
In 7-21 days the larvae spins a cocoon and becomes a pupa. The pupa is nearly indestructible. If the ideal conditions persist the larvae will emerge as an adult in a week. If conditions are not favorable, the pupa can survive for a year. If the pupa senses either vibrations or the presence of carbon dioxide, within a few seconds the flea will emerge. Those triggers indicate the likely presence of a host with blood to spare.
When your dog begins scratching, and you find small grains that look like pepper between the hairs or on the pet bed, then you can be pretty sure you need to do some flea control. If you want to be certain that the small black spots are flea feces and not something else, put a few on a wet paper towel. Since the fleas excrete undigested blood, the spots will dissolve into red blotches if they are from fleas.
Simple ideas that will help control fleas:
These will only work completely if the problem is not very serious. But they can help even if there are a lot of fleas. These tips are safe for dogs or puppies, whereas many of the medications can not be used to treat puppies.
If your dog’s hair is not too long, this is a very inexpensive treatment. Get a fine-tooth flea comb and a tub of soapy water. Dip the comb in the water and then comb the dog, dipping the tool between each stroke. This will remove and kill fleas and eggs. Concentrate on the head and neck, and around the tail. The project is rewarding because you can see the fleas you have killed.
Vacuum your home and furniture. Some dogs even like to be vacuumed. This physically removes the fleas and eggs, and is more effective than you might imagine. Be sure to change the bag or clean the canister after vacuuming. Seal used vacuum bags in plastic to prevent reinfestation. Soap or alcohol will kill any pests sucked up in a reusable canister. Vacuuming can remove up to 30% of larvae and 60 % of eggs from a carpet.
You can wash bedding, and loose fabrics like afghans and pillows, but unless you also vacuum the crevices of furniture and closet corners this isn't going to help for more than the first 10 minutes after these clean items go back in place.
Don’t bother trying these to control fleas:
Flea collars- these are really a holdover from a previous era of flea control. They work by releasing a poisonous gas. Some dogs are badly allergic to this, and even if not, they are toxic at some level. Read my experiences with a Hartz-Ultra Guard Collar.
Flea shampoos are not much help because they only kill fleas that are on the dog at the time. They offer no continuing protection. If you don’t control the larger problem your dog will be covered again as soon as the fur is dry. Shampooing might be a useful part of a larger program of flea control.
There are two kinds of flea sprays. One kind works by killing adult fleas. These are pesticide sprays. Again, you are just spraying your pet with poison. Some dogs may react badly to this. Here is my experience with Hartz Flea and Tick Spray The other kind of spray is a insect growth regulator (IGR). These block the flea’s life cycle, but they can take 4-6 weeks to work. Do you have that long if the dog is suffering? I’ve also tried one of these, but saw no results fast enough to be helpful. Sergeant Gold Flea Spray .
There are products that purport to kill fleas in the yard. If it's a bad flea year, you might as well just throw your money down a hole since you can't treat the entire neighborhood. If you do decide to try to control the outdoor environment, consider an IGR (insect growth regulator) which will stop the reproductive cycle.
What works best:
Oral medications such as Program ® use lufenuron as the active ingredient. These tablets act as flea birth control. It prevents the flea from developing chitin, a necessary part of its exoskeleton. There are no known toxic effects on humans or any animal that doesn’t need chiton (only insects, arachnids, mollusks, squid or octopuses, and crustaceans use chitin). However, some pets may develop an upset stomach and acid reflux.
Another oral treatment is Capstar ®, which uses nitenpyram to kill fleas immediately. After administering a tablet, fleas will begin to die within 30 minutes, and every flea on the pet will be dead within a few hours. I works by blocking the transmission of nerve impulses in the flea. It has no long-term treatment value, and is usually used as part of a program to get a jump start on killing off a bad infestation. A dog may experience extreme itching as the fleas die and begin to fall off, but this will be short lived.
Topical treatments work for about one month before reapplication is needed. The two big names are Advantage ® and Frontline ®. The active ingredient in Advantage is imidacloprid, a neurotoxin what causes paralysis and subsequent death of the fleas. The effects are usually seen within minutes of application. Advantage is supposed to be resistant to washing off in water. So if you have a dog who likes to swim, this may be a good choice. I have not personally used this product.
As for Frontline, I have written an entire article on how is works. The active ingredients are fipronil and (S)-methoprene, which kill fleas immediately and over time. One is a neurotoxin and the other is a growth regulator. See How Frontline Plus for Dogs Kills Fleas and Ticks.
I have also written a review of Frontline Plus at Frontline- a $45 Miracle
If you are being bitten too, the problem is very serious. Fleas do on live on humans, so if you are seeing bites on your body it means that there are so many fleas that they are looking for additional sources of blood. You may need to call an exterminator.
Always take fleas seriously. Modern control methods work well, and I learned the hard way that trying to solve the problem with cheaper methods only means that you will spend more money in the long run.
Take action at the first sign of fleas, or even before that. As the summer heat and humidity rises, and then as the weather cools in fall, fleas will move in. Be ready to wage war, and your dog will not only thank you but will be healthier as a result.