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Healthy Paws: Fleas, What’s the Big Deal?

Healthy Paws

Editor’s Note: Healthy Paws is a column sponsored and written by the owners of Clarendon Animal Care, a full-service, general practice veterinary clinic. The clinic is located 3000 10th Street N., Suite B. and can be reached at 703-997-9776.

Flea season in our area tends to be late summer and into the fall months, so this is a good time to brush up on your flea knowledge (sounds exciting, right?) to be sure you’re fully prepared for the onslaught of these prodigiously breeding insects.

What exactly is a flea?

Fleas are small (~2-3mm), reddish-brown insects. They feed on the blood of mammals and birds. While they cannot fly, they have incredible jumping ability. According to the website, the average flea can jump about 5 inches high and 9 inches horizontally, though they can reach 8 inches high and nearly 20 inches horizontally.

What is the lifecycle of the flea? And why does it matter? 

Adult female fleas feeding on an animal can start laying eggs within hours, laying up to 50 eggs per day. Eggs develop in the environment, preferring cool dark places (like under fallen leaves — which is why we tend to see an increase in cases of flea infestations in the fall) and indoors along baseboards, carpets, and crevices of furniture or floors. Larvae then develop into pupae, typically preferring the same places as the larval stages. Finally, adults emerge from the pupal stage . . . and start looking for a host to feed on. This whole process can take as little as a few weeks in optimal conditions. However, the larval and pupal stages can also lie dormant for months, and hatch only once they sense the environmental factors are ideal (vibrations from movement, heat and CO2 can all trigger this).

Because of the prodigious egg-laying of the adult flea, it is possible for a single adult female to quickly lead to an infestation. The environment (which can be outdoors OR indoors) quickly becomes contaminated with eggs, larvae, and pupae.

How do I know if my pet has fleas?

Sometimes you will actually see the flea moving along the skin under the hair coat, or even jumping from the pet as you rub their belly. A more reliable way to detect them is to look for “flea dirt,” which is digested and excreted blood. The tail area and behind the ears are two common places to see this.

However, sometimes it’s not a simple diagnosis, especially early on. Some pets are very sensitive to flea bites, and will demonstrate intense itching with only a single bite — in these cases, it may be difficult to detect the fleas.

The classic signs of a pet with fleas are intense itching or chewing around the tail base (and in general). The itch associated with fleas is often more intense than we might see with other causes of itchiness (namely, allergies).

So, fleas are obviously gross, but how bad are they really?

Many animals will exhibit intermittent discomfort or itchiness, but in sensitive pets, even a single bite may cause the pet to be extremely itchy, and the scratching due to that can then lead to secondary skin problems such as bacterial infections and trauma to the skin from all the scratching.

In young puppies and kittens, or severely infested animals, fleas can cause anemia due to blood loss.

The most common form of tapeworms, Diplydium caninum, is also transmitted by fleas. While not a serious health concern, tapeworms are nevertheless just gross, for lack of a better word!

Fleas also carry the bacteria Bartonella, the causative agent of Cat Scratch Disease. Typical transmission is from the scratch of an infected cat (who got the disease from fleas), but there is some thought that infected fleas can transmit directly to humans via a bite.

Plague, caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, can also be transmitted by fleas.

Needless to say, there can be some pretty serious health implications secondary due to fleas.

What is the best way to prevent fleas?

Fortunately, long-gone are the days of flea dips and sprays; there are a plethora of options for excellent flea control available. In addition to products that are applied topically (to the skin), there are also oral options.  We recommend consulting with your pet’s veterinarian about the different options and what would be best for your pet.

A word of caution regarding CATS — cats are especially sensitive to the pyrethrin class of flea preventatives, and most veterinarians have seen at least one case of a cat exposed to flea preventative that is intended only for dogs — with violent tremoring, salivation, seizures, and even temporary blindness.  Be sure that the flea preventative you are using on your cat, whether prescription or OTC, is approved for use in cats!

Are there any more natural alternatives for flea prevention?   

At this time, there are no consistently reliable natural alternatives that work as well as conventional drugs. Unfortunately, many herbal flea products are generally ineffective and sometimes toxic at truly effective doses. Most natural products sold over-the-counter only provide one to three days of protection. The commercial herbal sprays are very weak and certified veterinary herbalists note that they only last about 24 hours. The reason they only work for a few days is because while they are likely safe, this means they have to be incredibly diluted. If used daily, even at the diluted level, they can prove to be toxic in the long run.  If you are looking for natural alternatives, it is recommended to do DAILY flea combing. This should be combined with environmental control, which includes very frequent vacuuming and cleaning of floors and baseboards in the home. Additionally, boric acid or diatomaceous earth can be used on the carpet (following manufacturer recommendations) to kill larval stages — however, neither of these is completely free of potential side effects despite being more “natural.”

Do I really need to give flea prevention year-round?  

In short, yes! Again, because all it takes is a single adult flea to set up an infestation in the home, we and the vast majority of veterinarians in our area recommend flea prevention year-round. It doesn’t matter if it’s below freezing outside, as the fleas will be happy little campers inside your toasty warm home.

If my pet has fleas, do I need to have the house treated (“bombed”)? 

It depends.  In mild cases, often just treating the pet effectively, combined with diligent cleaning of the home, will be effective. However, if it’s been a long-standing problem, or there are multiple pets in the home, it is often best to get an exterminator involved to treat the environment.

A word of caution here — there are no available products that can kill the pupal life stage — so it is still imperative to have pets on regular preventative because those pupae will hatch into adults; without the pet being treated, those adult fleas will again be able to set up shop.

Additional Resources:

If You’ve Been Infested

Top 10 Flea Myths

Companion Animal Parasite Council – Flea recommendations

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