Pet Docs: Getting a handle on fleas

  • Posted: Sunday, June 17, 2012 12:01 a.m.

Recently, my daughter was combing one of our cats and she approached me (Dr. Perry Jameson) with a wad of hair. In a disgusted tone asked, “Daddy what is this?” In the handful of orange hair were three live fleas and lots of flea dirt (a polite term for flea excrement).

She and I then went around and checked the other six pets and found fleas on all of them, too. This caught me off guard as I felt we had been doing a good job with flea control. On the first of each month we apply a topical flea prevention to each cat and the two dogs, and then mark it on our calendar.

This prompted a call to my good friend and pet skin expert Dr. Randy Thomas to get an idea of why this was happening and what I should do to remedy the situation. Thomas and his wife, Dr. Lisa Akucewich, are veterinary dermatologists at Southeast Veterinary Dermatology and Ear Clinic.

Family veterinarians seek their help to control skin diseases on their patients.

Thomas said that in a single day about a week before my call, half the pets he saw were diagnosed with flea allergies. Even if they have another reason to itch, he has to eliminate the fleas first since, “they are such a potent cause of itchiness.”

Preventives
I was worried the flea product was no longer working or the fleas were getting resistant. He reassured me I was doing everything right and that there is no evidence of resistance to the products prescribed by veterinarians to prevent and kill fleas.

The problem this year is that there are so many fleas, the products are being overwhelmed. These compounds are neurotoxins that are safe for pets but target insects. It takes time for the fleas to die and the higher the concentration of product the faster the products work. So early in the month, fleas will die quickly, but as the month, progresses it will take longer.

“Sometimes we will prescribe these twice a month,” Thomas said, “but you should check with your veterinarian before doing this.”

The egg, larvae and pupae stages of the flea life cycle make up 95 percent of the flea population. So the 5 percent of adults we see living on our pets are only a small fraction of the actual infestation. Thomas reminded me that to totally get a handle on the problem, I should not only treat my pets but also the environment that they live in — my house and yard. “Many wild animals can carry the cat flea and continuously keep bringing them back into your yard,” he explained.

Inside treatment
For my home, he recommended a self-directed spray such as Knock Out Area Treatment. Self-directed means the product can be sprayed in areas that need to be treated. He likes these better than foggers that put insecticide on the tops of furniture (where fleas do not live) and not underneath furniture (where they do). Most smooth surfaces, like tile or linoleum, do not need treatment either.

Fleas like areas where organic matter collects such as carpets, rugs, furniture and the cracks between boards in your hardwood floor. Vacuuming these areas before treatment may help for several reasons. It removes fleas, eggs, pupae and larvae. It may dislodge pupae from their cocoon, making them sensitive to the insecticide, and it gets the carpet fibers standing up so the spray can penetrate deeper.

Just remember to throw away the vacuum bag or empty and thoroughly wash the canister after you've finished. If you don't, you've just given the fleas a new home and they might start coming out of the vacuum.

Washing pet bedding and human bedding (especially if your pets sleep with you) in hot water and detergent should kill all stages. In severe infestations, bedding should be replaced.

Outside treatment
Since I live on rural Johns Island with lots of wildlife, Thomas stressed that I must treat my yard to fully get this under control. Fleas like shaded areas the most — under trees, stairs and decks as well as in mulch. These are the areas to concentrate on.

He recommended raking up mulch and removing/restricting pet and wild life access to the areas under stairs and decks. He also recommended the use of a broadcast sprayer such as Bayer Advanced Complete Insect Killer, which contains the same ingredient as the Advantage I was applying to my pets.

“If you do two treatments three to four weeks apart, you should get the problem under control and then follow-up every three to four months to maintain,” he said.

Thomas also mentioned that a growth regulator was another treatment option. These come in oral or topical preparations for your pet and prevent the flea eggs from developing to adulthood, effectively breaking the life cycle. He stressed that because each home and pet is different, the best plan of attack is one you and your veterinarian come up with together.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to petdocs@postandcourier.com.

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