Warmth! Rain! Spring! Fleas! It is that time again, my friends, when fleas emerge from dormancy and become a nuisance. While fleas are active all year here in the District metropolitan area, they can become a menace when the temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees. Let’s understand the flea life cycle and how to prevent these buggers from annoying you and your furred friends.
The common cat flea, which also infests dogs, has been around for millennia. Be thankful you live now and not millions of years ago. We have fossils of fleas the size of golf balls. Seeing as they have been around long before humans or even cats and dogs, they know what they are doing.
Our main goal is to prevent flea infestations. We will discuss flea treatment in a bit.
A female flea is capable of laying over 600 eggs during her lifetime. She may live anywhere from two weeks to eight months, depending upon temperature, humidity and food supply. Her lifecycle is rather fascinating (well, I think so) and is important to understand when trying to manage control.
The adult fleas lay eggs on a host (in our case, a dog or cat) and feed on the animal. Feeding means biting and sucking blood. Think of them as tiny vampires. They digest the blood and then poop it out onto the pet. They also lay eggs in the fur. When the pet lies down to sleep, the eggs and the feces from the adult fleas fall onto the ground, be it a bed, carpet, leaf litter.
If the temperature is right, the eggs hatch into larvae (grubs) and eat the feces from the adults. They grow and shed their outer skin several times. This is called molting. After several molts, they spin a small cocoon similar to a caterpillar’s, where they turn into adult fleas. They can wait for months – for the perfect time – until a hatching is triggered by vibrations of an animal walking by. And they are hungry! They then jump onto the passing animal and repeat the cycle.
Flea bites are itchy, and fleas eat blood, so they bite frequently. The saliva triggers an allergic reaction leading to itching. It only takes a few bites to cause some dogs or cats to be extremely itchy. Aside from the itch, fleas can also transmit tapeworms, if they are eaten, and a host of other diseases. While itching and fleas are the most common sequela in our area, fleas can transmit a host of other diseases too, including plague.
No one wants fleas on their pet or in their home. While we have effective oral and topical flea preventives (to be discussed later), a bit of home maintenance can help, too. Vacuum regularly, especially the areas where your pets sleep. Fleas love carpets and slightly moist areas, such as basements. These are prime areas for flea eggs to mature. Vacuum then wash pet bedding on a regular basis in hot water. Once young fleas turn into pupae, the only method to eliminate them is through mechanical means – or let them hatch.
Vacuuming helps but is far from sufficient. Many products have come to market that prevent infestations or kill fleas on pets. Capstar is an oral tablet that rapidly kills any flea on a dog or cat. Its drawback is that it is a one-shot deal: fleas can reinfest the pet rapidly. It can be used in urgent situations.
Topical preventives have existed for over two decades, with the most popular brand being Frontline. The medication floats within the skin oils of the pet, killing fleas for a month. Its efficacy decreases if the pet is bathed frequently. Its main drawback is that it is topical and may not spread over the entire pet. Some pets also have a sensitivity to the alcohol which suspends the active ingredients.
Seresto collars are effective for flea control. The collar can last up to six months and is worn at all times. The drawbacks are that the collar is a topical medication and the collar can be lost.
Newer-generation flea preventives are oral tablets. These are effective for one month (Simparica, NexGard) or three months (Bravecto). The oral preventives are District Vet’s preferred method of flea control, as their administration is easy and you can confirm that the dog received the dose. They are also highly effective and take care of ticks too. In rare cases the oral preventives can cause tremors (shakes) in dogs. If observed, please tell your veterinarian. These clinical signs wear off quickly, but a different flea control should be used. There is an oral preventive for cats too, but we prefer a topical called Revolution, as it also prevents heartworm disease.
When purchasing flea preventives, be wary of where you obtain the medications. There are numerous fakes on the market, especially the preventives. Several large online retailers and even popular big-box stores have been found to be carrying ineffective, counterfeit or even dangerous product. Most veterinary offices obtain these medications directly from the manufacturer and have ironclad authenticity, safety and efficacy guarantees.
Fleas are here, but they do not have to be part of your home. Understanding how to prevent them is key to having an itch-free dog or cat. Should you have questions, please feel free to ask us or your local veterinarian.
Dan Teich, DVM, is medical director at District Veterinary Hospitals.