Itching and scratching are bad enough. But did you know that fleas—those pesky critters that can drive your pets crazy and infest your whole home— also can lead to tape worms or carry diseases like bartonella (cat-scratch fever) and even the plague?
“You can find fleas in the best neighborhoods—they don’t discriminate,” says Dr. Travis Arndt, interim medical director at the Humane Society of Missouri’s Animal Medical Center of Mid-America. And the past year has been unusually bad because of a succession of mild winters, adds Dr. Stacey Wallach of Town & Country Veterinary Hospital. Given that a single female flea can produce thousands of eggs in her life cycle, “it gets out of hand excessively fast. Prevention is so much cheaper than treatment. Do not skimp on your products—it will hurt you in the long run.”
There are many preventive products on the market—including collars, pills and topical treatments—but not all are created equal, experts note. Arndt regularly recommends Frontline Plus, which both slows the development of fleas and kills adults on pets, but notes that any product is only effective if it’s used properly. “The three big issues I see with people using a product and still having a flea problem are not using the product regularly, not using it year-round, and not treating every pet in the household.” He adds that most monthly topical products reside in the oil glands in the skin, and it takes three months of regular use for the treatment to reach its maximum effectiveness. “If you don’t treat on a consistent basis, you never achieve that place, which puts your pet at risk.
Jan Mound, a stylist at Kennelwood Pet Resorts, notes that while fleas are a problem in the spring and summer, the height of the season actually is late fall. “A lot of people who use topicals use them until the first freeze and then they say, I don’t need to use it any longer,” she says. “We start seeing a lot of activity in the late fall, when it starts to cool off.”
Another key point is that flea prevention is not a one-size-fits-all medication. Wallach notes that certain breeds are sensitive to particular products—cats in particular are sensitive to permethrin, which is used in many dog flea prevention products. “The box has an X with a sign that says ‘No Cats,’ but many people don’t realize they shouldn’t even be putting it on their dog if they have a cat,” she notes. Permethrin can cause convulsions and even can be fatal for cats. Arndt adds that if you think your cat has been exposed, the best thing to do is bathe them using Dawn dish soap to remove the oils from the product, and call your veterinarian.
There also are organic options for pet owners who are wary of using chemicals or pesticides on their pets, Mound says. One such product is diatomaceous, a powder made from the fossilized remains of freshwater organisms. On a microscopic level, the particles are jagged like glass, so if a flea comes into contact with it, the exoskeleton will be destroyed and the flea dies, she notes.
Many people are hesitant to ask their vet about flea prevention if they’re not planning to buy the product in the office, but Arndt says that’s a mistake. “We’re here to help pets live better lives and help pets enjoy their lives even more. We can be a valuable resource.”
Stemming the Tide
What to do if your pet—or home—is infested with fleas:
• First, kill the adult fleas already on your pet. Many vets and groomers offer Capstar, an oral tablet that does just that in 30 minutes to a couple of hours, Mound notes. At Kennelwood, a stylist would follow up with a flea shampoo and a Healthy Skin & Coat treatment. Capstar runs through your pet’s system within 24 hours, she notes, so it’s vital to follow up with your vet for a long-term treatment.
• Only the adult fleas live on pets (about 5 percent of what’s in the environment), Arndt notes. The rest live in the environment, so vacuum any carpeted surfaces in your home. Also wash any bedding (both the pet’s bed and your family’s bedding) that the pet has come into contact with, then run it through the dryer.
• Fleas thrive in dark and shady areas, Wallach says, which are often the same areas where pets like to sit on hot summer days. Spray all of these areas in your yard with a pet-safe pesticide.