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Flea Season is here! Stop the itch!

Authored by Daniel Cardosa, Jr. DVM, DABVP, MACVSc
October 2, 2018

  Flea and tick season is upon us!  September and October tend to be the worst months for fleas.  Ticks, however, are more plentiful as the weather cools during October and November.  In addition to being a nuisance, these pests can also transmit a number of diseases, some of which can be life threatening.  Prevention is important to try to avoid infestation and disease.  Infestation with fleas can be very difficult to get under control and may takes months, and even years to get rid of.  While your dog or cats can not directly transmits diseases from ticks or fleas directly to you they can bring these pests into your home where they can reproduce and spread disease by biting you or someone in your house.

     Here's what you can do to try to help prevent your pets from getting sick from these pests or from creating an infestation.

    Dogs and cats can get fleas from outside the home and bring them in with them.  Many wild animals, such as rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks, can have fleas, or, they can get them from other dogs and cats.  Fleas need to feed on blood before they can lay eggs.  These eggs look like grains of salt and fall off the pet where they can hatch later.  The eggs hatch into larvae, small, maggot like creatures, and then pupate. 

     Adult fleas, larvae and eggs are susceptible to strategies for control while pupae are resistant to most control methods.  A strategy for eradicating flea infestation should take into account the life cycle and various stages of flea development.

     Adult fleas must feed on a host in order to reproduce and lay eggs.  Newly emerged adults begin to try to locate a host and feed within a few hours.  Female fleas must have a blood meal in order to lay eggs.  Adult fleas spend the majority of their time on a host and can live for several weeks to several months.  Female fleas may lay 2000 eggs in their lifetime under the right conditions. Optimal environmental conditions exist within 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity levels greater than 70%.  Those conditions tend to occur in the summer months here in the Northeast with September and early October being the most likely times for the optimal environmental conditions to exist.  This is when we usually the most flea infestations as they tend to reproduce rapidly in the warm, humid, late summer months.

    Eggs begin the life cycle of the flea and are small, white objects that resemble a grain of salt.  The eggs are laid on the host and drop off as the animal moves around its environment.  Eggs will htach in 2 days to 2 weeks depending on conditions.  Warm, humid weather will allow the eggs to hatch at a faster rate than cool, dry weather conditions.

     Larvae hatch from the flea eggs.  Larvae are small, about 1/4 inch long, and white.  They look like small fly maggots.  The larvae feed on digested blood left by the feeding adult fleas.  The dried blood looks like coffee grounds.  Many mistake the dried blood, also called "flea dirt" for flea eggs.  Larvae will spin a cocoon in 1- 3 weeks depending on conditions. Again, warm, humid conditions mean the larvae will pupate faster. 

     Pupae are the 3rd stage of the life cycle and live in a tightly wound cocoon that is virtually impermeable to most forms of flea control.  The cocoon is also very sticky allowing it to adhere to the surrounding environment making it difficult to dislodge from the surrounding area.  Adult fleas emerge from the cocoon only when the likelihood of a host being present is high.  Vibration, increasing carbon dioxide levels from mammalian respiration and heat will stimulate the emergence of young adult fleas from the pupal stage.

     Adult fleas represent the 4th stage of the flea life cycle.  Adult fleas are controlled by several different methods.  Topical products can be very effective depending in the product used.  Spot on product such as fipronil, permethrins, moxidectin, selamectin, ivermectin and imidacloprid are all effective as topical agents.  These can be found in a number of different products.  It is advisable to also find a product that contains an insect growth regulator such as pyriproxyfen to help break the cycle of eggs hatching and molting larvae.  These products are also effective against the larval stages of the life cycle.  Resistance may develop if one product is used consecutively for many seasons.  I recommend clients choose 3 different products and alternate each season.  Oral products are also available and very effective.  Fleas must feed but are usually rapidly killed often before they can lay eggs.  Flea collars are also helpful but almost never completely resolve flea infestations alone. I recommend using multiple products to control both fleas and ticks.  Again, exercise  caution when selecting products for cats.  Every year we see cats intoxicated by flea and tick products that require hospitalization and support for several days. 

     Simply treating your pets won't stop flea infestations.  You must treat the environment as well. This means the indoor environment and possibly the yard as well.  Wash your pets bedding in hot water at least weekly.  Vacuum frequently and regularly for several weeks being sure to seal and dispose of the vacuum cleaner contents each time you vacuum.   I also like to put some cotton balls with flea spray on them in the bag or vacuum cleaner canister.  This will kill any fleas, larvae and eggs as well as any pupae that emerge due to the vibration of the vacuum cleaner.  I prefer area sprays over flea bombs or foggers.  Sprays allow you to target areas and require less work and are less dangerous than foggers.  Foggers require you wash you dinnerware and clothing to get any poisonous residue off.  You should also wash any canned or packaged goods and maybe even throw some food away to avoid ingesting toxins.  Be careful even with sprays though; inhaling them can be dangerous especially if you have any respiratory issues such as asthma.

     Flea infestation can be extremely challenging to eliminate.  You can do it if you target the flea life cycle and persist in treating your pets and the environment for several weeks using the correct chemicals safely.  Treat all the pets in the household and all areas that the pets use including your car and furniture if appropriate.  Please contact a veterinarian if you have any questions about ridding your home and pets of these pests.  Their staff is trained on the best methods and strategies to eliminate fleas and make your home safe and comfortable.




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