The Glenville Veterinary Clinic

Fleas: the other f-word

fleasFleas are small, wingless insects that feed on blood by biting animals.  While they cannot fly, their strong legs allow them to jump up to a foot in the air. Their hard outer shell makes it difficult to “squash” them, and also makes them resistant to insecticides. Not only do fleas cause discomfort by biting (and imagine how your pet feels having those little buggers crawling around on their skin), but they can also cause anemia, infections, allergic reactions, and tapeworm infestation.

How do I tell if my pet has fleas?
Obvious signs of fleas are itching and scratching, but some pets may not show any signs.  You can check your pet’s body, especially on the inside of his legs and his belly, for any live fleas.  You can also take a fine-toothed comb and run it through your pet’s fur right above his tail.  If you see any red or black debris, it could be flea dirt: digested blood that has been excreted by the flea, otherwise known as “flea poop.”  Place some of this debris on a wet paper towel; if it runs red, then you have flea dirt – and fleas!

The adult flea has a lifespan of up to one year, and has a complete life cycle: egg, larva, pupae, and adult.  A single flea can lay up to 50 eggs each day.  The larvae/pupae that hatch from these eggs may remain in the environment for several months.  It is very difficult to kill the pupae stage, and the egg is also resistant to insecticides.  Only the adult flea infests the animal to obtain a blood meal.  The rest of the life cycle takes place in the environment: commonly your carpets, pet bedding, and furniture.

Now that we know about their life cycle, let’s learn how to get rid of them! You must treat both the environment AND your pets.  First, treat all the cats and dogs in the home, even if they do not go outside.  We highly discourage using any flea products you may find at your supermarket or pet store, as we cannot guarantee their safety or effectiveness.  We recommend using a topical medication such as Advantix II (for dogs) or Frontline Plus (for cats or dogs), which you can purchase from your veterinarian (we almost always have “buy one get one” promotions going on, so be sure to ask!).  For severe infestations, there is a pill called Capstar that will kill any live fleas on the pet; it starts working within 30 minutes but only lasts for 24 hours.  Topical mediations should be applied every 30 days for at least 3 months in a row, but ideally year round.  For dogs, we also recommend Sentinel, which is a heartworm- and intestinal parasite-preventative that will also control flea eggs (but not live fleas). 

What about shampoos and collars?
For some pets, a flea bath may be appropriate, but it’s best left to the professionals (your groomer or veterinarian).  Many flea shampoos contain strong chemicals, so it is very important to avoid the pet’s eyes, and are only effective short-term.  And we probably don’t need to tell you that most cats do NOT enjoy getting baths!  While flea collars have come a long way in recent years, many still only work to control fleas around the front end of the pet (so fleas tend to simply travel to the other end).  The newer flea collars available from your veterinarian can be effective, but they are not appropriate for all pets.  Remember that each pet is different, so be sure to ask your veterinarian which products are best for your dog or cat.

After all the pets have been treated, it’s time to treat your house. First, launder anything you can fit in a washing machine, especially pet bedding and your linens (bath mats, sheets, blankets, etc), using HOT water.  Wash the entire pet bed, rather than just the cover, as fleas love to hide in stuffing!  If you can’t wash and dry it, throw it out.  Also wash your pet’s toys. 

Then, vacuum like you’ve never vacuumed before!  Under furniture, beneath couch cushions, in every nook and cranny, especially any area where pets spend a lot of time.  Anything that you couldn’t fit in your washing machine should be vacuumed.  After vacuuming, immediately remove the bag or empty the canister, double-bag the contents and discard it in the trash outside.  Also vacuum and mop any tile or hard-wood flooring, as fleas can hide in cracks and baseboards.

The next step is to use an area spray available through your veterinarian, pet store, or hardware store.  Area sprays are more effective than “bombs” or “foggers” because fleas can easily hide under furniture and other items that the bomb/fogger cannot reach. Apply an even mist with the area spray, remembering to get under furniture.  Read the directions carefully to see how long people and pets should avoid the area.  Once the spray has dried, vacuum at least every other day (remember to throw out the bag or empty the canister immediately). Repeat the area spray treatments in 2 weeks to kill the emerging new fleas.

Along with using area sprays, you can also make a homemade “flea trap” using a shallow bowl filled with water and dish soap placed under a desk lamp (just make sure to keep curious pets from drinking out of it).  While fleas drown easily, they thrive in high humidity, so adding a dehumidifier is a safe addition to your flea control regimen.  

Remember to continue to treat pets monthly, ideally year round but at least until we’ve had a hard frost, and beginning again in spring right after the first thaw.  If you have had fleas in your home, all pets should be treated year round.

Fleas range from a minor inconvenience to a major nuisance. The best method to avoid either is prevention!  Be sure to ask your veterinarian which products are right for your pets.

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