As the cooler days move in, blankets aren’t the only thing added to our house. Suddenly, almost all new kittens and most pets that weren’t on flea protection started showing us a flea or two (or many more.) While fall makes us load up on firewood, wood pellets or heating fuel; it makes the fleas desperate for a ride inside. No one wants to be trapped outdoors when it is thirty degrees if they could be inside snuggling into a couch, and fleas are no exception.
While fleas don’t seem as scary as ticks, they replicate much more quickly and love to be inside. Fleas can jump over a foot, which would equal a human jumping almost 300 feet. That means that you don’t even have to touch your pet for a flea to get onto you. If your animals aren’t allowed on furniture, nothing is stopping the flea from hopping onto your couch or bed. Each flea lays an average of 20 eggs in a batch, though they can lay many of these batches.
They typically will feed on a pet (or human), then lay eggs right on them. Yes, disgusting! The eggs then roll onto floors, bedding, or couches where the pet rests. The eggs then hatch into larvae, which love to hide out in cracks in floors and other dark spaces. From here, they hatch into pupae, which are the most tenacious of all stages.
Pupae are encased in a type of cocoon that they build from surrounding materials. This means that they look just like whatever is around them. In this stage, they are almost impossible to eliminate. No sprays or pesticides will get through the cocoon. They can hang out like this for a long time before they hatch (up to 6 months!), so you may think your house is flea-free before a big hatch that sends you back into the flea zone. When the pupae are ready and detect something with blood (through vibrations and CO2 emissions) they then hatch. Pupae are picked up by vacuuming in most cases, though just like other small things, they can often escape detection. It is important that when dealing with a flea problem you empty the vacuum after every cleaning; otherwise, the pupae will simply live and hatch in the vacuum.
Will I always see fleas?
Fleas are still fairly small, so many owners don’t notice them. Cats are good at cleaning fleas off themselves (and eating them.) This means they may have bitten your cat and laid eggs, then been eaten and vanished from sight. Dogs aren’t so good at it, and you can often find fleas on them. The most common sign of fleas is what we refer to as “flea dirt.” Flea dirt is actually feces (poop) made by the flea and left on your pet. While it often looks like regular dirt, when exposed to water it will turn orange/red. This is because flea feces is digested blood, so when you melt it the color changes from dark to the color of dried blood.
We use special combs to screen all pets when they come into the clinic, but even when we see adult fleas on an exam most owners weren’t aware of their presence. Their size and burrowing can make them difficult to see.
So, my pet has fleas, is it a big deal?
This depends on the pet and your tolerance for insects. While pets can get anemia, tapeworms and a few blood-borne diseases from fleas (especially cats) the main issue stems from fleas in the house. Additionally, some pets are allergic to flea saliva. These pets have a flea allergy. This means that even one bite from a passing flea can set off a cycle of itching and skin infection that can take months to resolve.
Houses can become infested pretty quickly. The average adult female flea can lay about 2,000 eggs in a lifetime. Multiply this number by 10 (the minimum most pets have) and you have 20,000 fleas waiting to hatch. Of course, not all of them will, but even a fraction of this number is a lot. Fleas don’t care what warm-blooded animal they bite, and many people in a house with a flea problem get bites as well. Many times pets sleep with children or in the rooms of babies, which means that each flea on your pet or in your house has the potential to be biting your child. In a temperature-controlled space (such as a house) they will live and thrive year-round.
So, what now?
If you haven’t been using flea prevention, now is the time to start. Adult fleas can live for about three months. We always say that three uninterrupted months of flea control is the absolute minimum to treat an infestation. Many heartworm pills (and some preventatives) have an ingredient that will make offspring non-viable. This means that when the female flea bites a pet and is able to lay eggs before she dies, the eggs won’t be able to develop. This is an especially important aspect if you already have fleas.
The ideal is 12 months of flea control once fleas have been found on your pet. This ensures that adults and any yet-to-emerge adults will be exposed to an insecticide. In the initial stages, it is important to wash all bedding in hot water and vacuum all surfaces (including furniture backs and bottoms) daily while emptying the bag after each use or washing the canister. This must happen while your pet is on a medication that will kill any adult fleas that bite. All pets must be treated, even if you haven’t seen fleas on them. If your dog becomes a less-desirable host, fleas will move to your cat next.
I can’t use a certain product on my pet, what do I do?
Flea products have evolved to the point where there is something for everyone. The only exception are pets under four weeks or two pounds. There are preventatives that you put on the skin monthly, chewables that last three days, one month, or three months depending on the product, and collars. Many of these also prevent ticks, so you can deal with two issues at once. Some products are specific for cats, dogs or certain weight ranges, so it is important to pay attention when you buy. Veterinary-supported brands are always ideal because the companies often go through regular testing of the products. We have found that many times a “cheap” product doesn’t pay in the long run. At the very least, have a discussion with your veterinarian on what product is best for your situation and pet.
Many people have concerns that the products which kill fleas are poison. This is an unavoidable truth. Fleas have been around Earth for a very long time, and have adapted accordingly. It is possible to kill fleas in other ways, but difficult. For example, while bathing a pet will help rid them of fleas, to actually kill a flea it must be submerged in water for 24 hours. Fleas can revive after 20 hours in water and be back to their old self in about five hours!
It is always important to use flea control in a proper manner, as pets can become sick when exposed to large doses. For instance, using a collar, topical, chewable and fogging your house will likely lead to a very sick animal. More isn’t better, and products made for dogs may be toxic for cats. Overdose is a possible thing, which is why the direction of your veterinarian is usually best.