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Fleas! Why you should fear them, and what you can do to treat & prevent them

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Jason Nicholas - Thursday, October 13, 2011

If you have pets, you’ve likely experienced fleas at some point. They’re miserable little buggers, aren’t they! Thing is, they’re even worse then you’re likely aware.

Sure, fleas cause your dog or cat to chew, scratch, roll, and otherwise feel miserable, but did you know that fleas also transmit disease - both to your pets, and to you and your family? Indeed they do… and some of these diseases can have very significant health consequences too. This is especially true if you or someone else in your home has a suppressed immune system.

People and pets wind up with a suppressed immune system typically either from a disease (HIV/AIDS, diabetes, certain cancers, and others) or from medications (certain chemotherapy drugs, and immunosuppressive drugs used following organ transplant or for treating rheumatoid arthritis & other immune-mediated diseases). Young children also have a degree of immune compromise until their immune system fully matures, and immune function typically decreases with advanced age - meaning that young children and the elderly are also at increased risk of the significant consequences from flea-transmitted diseases too.

Here’s a sampling of diseases that fleas can transmit to or cause in your pets:

  • Flea allergic dermatitis - severe itchiness
  • Anemia - low red blood cell count (fleas suck blood, thats what they live off of)
  • Bartonellosis
  • Plague
  • Tapeworms

And here’s a sampling of the conditions that fleas can transmit to or cause in you and your family:

As you’re now hopefully appreciating, the prevention and eradication of fleas on your pet and in your environment really isn’t just about your pet’s comfort - though that should be reason enough. It’s also about your general health and safety, as well as that of your family and your pets too. Interested in finding out what you need to know to prevent or eradicate a flea infestation on your pets and/or in your environment? Then read on…

Keys to preventing fleas from establishing an infestation on your pets or in your home:

In most (if not all) parts of the country, pets should be on flea prevention throughout the entire year. Even in areas where there’s a reliable frost, the different life stages of fleas that may already be established in your home can continue to develop and grow through the winter to keep an infestation going. Additionally, one stage of the flea life cycle, the pupal stage (see below), can remain dormant for several weeks until environmental conditions become more favorable for their survival. It’s also important to realize that in heavily wooded areas, such as here in Portland, when the weather gets cooler in the autumn rodents start trying to seek shelter in homes, and they typically bring plenty of fleas along for the ride. It’s just not worth it to ‘take a break’ from flea prevention - the costs and inconvenience of dealing with an infestation once its become established are far worse than those associated with preventing such an infestation from taking hold in the first place. As with most things… prevention is easier (and cheaper) than treatment.

ALL pets in the household need to be on flea prevention for your protocol to be effective - this includes indoor-only cats too! Indoor-only cats are not immune from getting fleas. People’s flea prevention plans often fall short when they forget to treat their indoor-only cats. For example, this past autumn I had two different clients bring in their indoor-only cats for examination because of extreme lethargy and weight loss. One of the clients thought for sure they were going to be having their beloved cat euthanized at the appointment, the degree of lethargy and weakness was so bad. Both cats were just so severely infested with fleas as to have become anemic from all the blood the fleas were feasting on. Got ‘em treated (both for fleas and their presumptive tapeworm infestations), got them on a good quality diet, and started them on a long term prevention plan (including environmental flea prevention measures). Today they’re both thriving, and back to their playful selves. The owners of both cats retrospectively reported having seen their cats playing with/hunting rodents in the home. As for this year, almost two weeks into October, I’ve already seen at least 10 patients with bad flea infestations… none of them on prevention. So even if your cats don’t go outside, they’re still at risk of getting fleas. Again,all pets in your home need to be on flea prevention to have the best chance of preventing an infestation.

Speak with your veterinarian about a safe and effective flea prevention protocol for all of your pets and your environment. Though you may be able to purchase some of the effective flea preventatives cheaper online or in some pet stores, the advice and knowledge that your veterinarian can provide you with is well worth the nominally increased price you may have to pay for such preventatives at their office. Additionally, some of the newer, faster acting flea preventatives can only be obtained from a veterinarian. And be honest, when the cheaper product you picked up online or in the pet store fails to prevent an infestation from becoming established, or worse still, you either inadvertently or intentionally grab off the shelf a product that isn’t safe for use on your particular pet and they suffer an adverse reaction (I’m mostly talking about the use of canine pyrethrin-based products on cats - see my previous blog post on the subject here), who are you going to turn to hoping for free help - the online retailer? The pet store? Not likely, and certainly not if you want the problem dealt with effectively. So why not just save yourself money and hassle in the long run and consult with your veterinarian about your flea prevention and treatment protocol in the first place. Then do the right thing and cough up the few extra bucks and purchase your flea prevention/treatment from them to compensate them for the time and advice they’ve just provided you with.

Flea treatments/preventatives I typically recommend for cats*:

  • Revolution - recommend for all cats, but especially those that spend any amount of time outdoors and for those that hunt rodents or birds. This not only kills fleas and prevents against infestation, but it also protects against heartworms, round worms, hook worms, and certain mites.
  • Frontline - ok for indoor-only cats that do not hunt
  • Advantage - as for Frontline

Flea treatments/preventatives I typically recommend for dogs*:

  • Comfortis or Trifexis - great because of its rapid kill action on adult fleas and because its a pill (no more messy topical pesticide, especially important if there are young children in the home). I love this stuff! Whats even cooler is the story of how this compound was discovered, check it out here on page 2.
  • Frontline Plus - recommend for any dogs that either don’t tolerate Comfortis/Trifexis, or that can’t be on it because of certain concurrent medications or certain pre-existing diseases 

*Recognize that your veterinarian may have other recommendations for flea preventatives and treatments that they may find more effective in your area or just more suitable for your particular pet’s situation. Again, as I stated above, you should always consult with your veterinarian regarding a safe and effective flea prevention and treatment program. I’m just listing my typical preferences for use here in the Portland area as a ‘starting off’ point for you while you are looking into your options.

Regularly and routinely vacuum your carpets and launder any bedding that your pets sleep on - be it your’s or theirs. This will help to kill any fleas/larvae and remove any flea ‘dirt’ that may occasionally get into the home. 

When moving into a new home or apartment, its always a good idea to ensure that the carpets and floors have been well cleaned. Ideally the whole environment should be ‘flea bombed’ several days prior to your move in, and then the carpets steam cleaned and the rest of the floors mopped. This will help to truly ensure that you and your pets are starting with a ‘fresh slate’. Again, recall from the flea life cycle diagram above that the pupal stage can ‘hibernate’ for several weeks in the absence of an appropriate host. So even if the house or apartment hasn’t had pets in it for a while, a flea infestation can still be laying in wait for you and your pets.

Keys to treating an established flea infestation on your pets and in your home:

Fortunately, many of the steps necessary to prevent an infestation from becoming established are the same steps you will need to take should one occur. So, you’re likely going to have to take these steps at some point… best to do it before an infestation takes hold, it’ll be better for you, your pets, and anyone else living in your home (less expensive too).

  • Get all pets on a safe and effective flea medication. Speak with your veterinarian for recommended products.
  • Bathe and/or flea comb your pets to remove ‘flea dirt’ and adult fleas. The juvenile fleas feed on flea dirt, so by removing it from their environment you deprive them of food.
  • Clean the environment. Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum! Pre-treat carpets with Borax, let sit for an hour or two, then vacuum up well and dispose of the vacuum bag outside. Be sure to color-fast test your carpets first and be sure to keep all pets and children off the carpets while the Borax is down. Also, ‘knock out’ your couch and chair cushions over the carpet before vacuuming, this will get rid of the flea dirt and life stages present on your cushions. Steam cleaning works well too, as does using a product called FleaBusters.
  • When vacuuming, be sure to pay particular attention to the areas around and under couches, chairs, beds, and any other areas where you pets may be jumping down from. When your pet jumps down, the fleas and flea dirt fall off your pet onto the floor to perpetuate the life cycle in the environment.
  • Launder all bedding in as hot a water as it will tolerate.
  • Leave all pets on an effective and safe flea preventative all year long to avoid having to go through the inconvenience and frustration of eradicating a flea infestation all over again.

Hopefully you and your pets will never experience a flea infestation… judging by the frustration clients have expressed when trying to eradicate an established infestation, it clearly isn’t a fun time. If you follow the recommendations provided here regarding the prevention of fleas, you’ll likely never need the recommendations provided for the eradication of them. Save yourself the frustration and costs, and save your pet the discomfort and disease… use preventatives.

How do you prevent or treat fleas on your pets and in their environment? Got any tips to share with others? Feel free to do so in the comments section below.

Be aware. Be prepared. Be Preventive!


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Information and advice on pet safety and emergency prevention from an experienced emergency room veterinarian. I may not always tell you what you want to hear, but I will always tell you what you need to know. Browse the website for more information and advice, and don't forget to follow along on Facebook and Twitter too.

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