Fun with Fleas

It’s here. The F-word no one wants to think about. Fall. With fall comes an increase in the cases of fleas that we see.  Anyone who grew up with pets is probably all too familiar with these little beasties and the havoc they can cause but I thought I would take this opportunity to review. The most common species of flea we see is the cat flea. Don’t let the name fool you, it isn’t a picky eater so these are the fleas we commonly see on dogs also.

All parasites have a life cycle. Understanding it can help understand how and why we recommend treating fleas the way we do. The cycle begins when the female flea lays eggs. The eggs fall off the pet and land…wherever they land. The eggs hatch into microscopic larvae. These can be resistant little critters.  They don’t like light so they will crawl into dark places: Under beds, between sofa cushions, behind doors and under your heaviest furniture. They hide deep in carpets and between cracks in hardwood floors.  They mature and pupate then hatch into adult fleas and start looking to suck blood.

How do you get fleas anyway? Everyone has heard the phrase: If you lie down with dogs you wake up with fleas. Well it’s actually true but it isn’t the only way. Contact with infected animals spreads fleas but they can hang out in the environment for long periods of time. Pupae can take several months to mature into adults. The result is they hang around the environment for a really long time even if there are no animals around to feed on.  They are surprisingly resourceful too. If hungry enough they will bite other species or simply hitch hike on any passerby.

Fleas don’t just make pets itchy. Some pets will have allergic reactions to fleas that cause severe itching, self-trauma and secondary infections.  Signs include severe itchiness and hair loss. Fleas like to hang out on the lower back around the base of the tail so this area often has the worst hair loss, scabs and crusting. Badly infected pets (usually puppies and kittens) can lose so much blood to feeding fleas that they become anemic.

As if having fleas wasn’t bad enough sometimes they bring you a bonus parasite. Fleas can carry tapeworm eggs. Your unsuspecting but now itchy pet grooms off a flea and swallows it. The flea digests away leaving a tapeworm egg to infect your pet. Tapeworms sometimes show up on fecal tests we send to the lab but not always. They are often diagnosed just by seeing little white grain-of-rice segments found around the rectal area or crawling on fresh stools. If you do see those little segments just give us a call. If you aren’t sure what they are don’t hesitate to bring them in for us to check.

So now we talk about getting rid of fleas. First things first…you have to treat ALL the animals in the house hold. If the dog has fleas so do the cats and vice versa. It doesn’t matter how much your cats hate each other if one has fleas they both do. You may not spot fleas on all your pets. The cleaner the cat the harder it is to find fleas and flea dirt but they are there…trust me on this. My first choice products are generally the topical products (applied to skin). They contain flea killers (depending on the product they may kill other beasties too) and your pet can’t throw them up. Most of these are water resistant and some are water proof.  There are some good oral products if your pet has sensitive skin, these may be the way to go. Some oral products are flea sterilizers rather than flea killers. I generally prefer to kill fleas then to let them hang around and bite my patient until they die of old age or the pet eats them and ends up with tapeworms.

Because of the length of the flea lifecycle and the fact that by the time you see fleas they have likely scattered eggs all over your house, we recommend treating all pets for at least 3 months in a row. During this time you may see new fleas as they hatch and jump on your pet but they will die when exposed to flea treatment.  If you want to get on the fast track to decreasing the eggs in the environment some specific cleaning is in order. Throw anything your pet sleeps on that is washable into the washing machine: bedding etc. Vacuum couch cushions – go between and under them. Vacuum under beds, couches etc not just in high traffic areas. If you have hard flooring it is easy to drown eggs using a mild soap and water solution as you mop. If your pets spend time outside check your yard as well. You can have companies in that will spray for flea, ticks and other insects in your yard. If you do this yourself then make sure you get any of the places your pet likes to sleep…under the deck etc.

If you live in an area with lots of wildlife, or other pets it may be a sensible option to keep your pet on preventative flea medication from March to November.  We can help you find the best product for your pet.

Dr Elizabeth Layton

About the Author

Dr Elizabeth LaytonView all posts by Dr Elizabeth Layton
Dr Layton graduated from the Ontario Veterinary College in 2005 and began work in mixed animal practice. Dr. Layton’s special interest is dentistry but she enjoys a variety of internal medicine and surgical cases.

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