Are fleas messing up your life? Here's what to do
Flea infestations can happen even in the most spotless home or on the healthiest, cleanest pet. Find out how to take control of this unavoidable and irritating aspect of pet ownership. From the PetPeople magazine archive
What are fleas?
Fleas are tiny, parasitic wingless insects of the order Siphonaptera. They have tube-like mouths adapted for piercing skin and sucking blood from the animals, birds and humans they come in contact with.
How likely are my pets to have fleas?
Very. The most common domestic flea is the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis), which also lives on dogs. But there's a dog flea too (Ctenocephalides canis). Rabbits need different treatment from cats and dogs - the treatment Frontline can be deadly for them, so get your vet's advice.
Does my pet have fleas?
If your pet is scratching, licking or nibbling its fur, and you have some unexplained bites, check for fleas by grooming your pet using a fine-toothed comb over a white surface such as a piece of kitchen paper. Any fleas or flea droppings will be deposited on it. Add a few drops of water - if the droppings turn reddish brown, it means that it's dried blood and it's likely that your pet has fleas.
Can't I just ignore them?
No. Not only can flea bites make your pet uncomfortable and itchy but they can also bring other problems. Pets and people hypersensitive to flea saliva can suffer from flea allergy dermatitis - a painful itching caused by bites. Flea saliva is one of the most allergenic substances there is and a severe infestation is enough to kill a puppy through blood loss. Cat fleas can also host dog tapeworm (Dipylidium caninum), and if your pet eats an infected flea when grooming, it can also become a host to this parasite. If your pet has fleas, you should ensure it is also treated for worms. Fleas can also carry diseases; myxomatosis in rabbits can be spread by fleas.
What do pullicologists (flea experts) recommend?
The RSPCA confirms that it always treats incoming animals for fleas within 24 hours, with treatment at its rescue centres and hospitals tailored to the individual animal. With 130,033 animals passing through their doors last year, it's crucial. Harvey Locke, president of the British Veterinary Association, says: 'It's very important to treat cats and dogs regularly, especially in the summer - and the home environment, too.' A female flea can lay thousands of eggs in a lifetime (which can last from 14 days to a year). An estimated 95 per cent of flea eggs and larvae live in carpets, bedding and soft furnishings - not on your pet. They can live there for months, even years, waiting to jump on board and feed off a warm-blooded animal - you or your pet!
What do I do about it?
Flea control is a three-part process and it's widely recognised that using different types of insecticide to kill the fleas (adulticides) and the developing eggs (insect growth regulators) is the most effective treatment.
1. Treat your pet
Flea collars aren't thought to be too effective and can irritate the skin around your pet's neck, while a flea comb will only get up to 60 per cent of the fleas. So, bathe your dog with an anti-flea shampoo, leaving the suds on for a while to work. To stop the fleas escaping upwards, pour a thick layer of shampoo as close to the top of the head and underneath the chin as you can. For cats, topical spot-on treatments kill most fleas within 24 hours, while oral treatments stop the larvae reproducing.
2. Treat your home
Most of a flea's life is spent somewhere other than on the host animal, so vacuum the whole house and all furniture (this will get about 95 per cent of adult fleas). Bad infestations may need steam cleaning. Wash pet bedding, cushions and rugs and then use a spray or fogger containing an insecticide and insect growth regulator. Most treatments take three weeks to have a noticeable effect.
3. Treat your garden
Flea larvae develop in shaded, humid areas, but drown fairly easily. Rainfall - or spraying your garden with water - is often enough to curb development. It also gets rid of the adult fleas' faecal matter that serves as food for the flea larvae.
My pet's allergic to chemicals - what's the alternative?
Some people swear by adding garlic to their dog's meals. You can also try giving your pet black walnut hulls (available from health food stores), which are believed to repel ticks and mosquitoes too.