by David Moore
Manager of Technical Services and Board Certified Entomologist
with contributions by Eric Smith, PhD, BCE
In a month or so, temperatures should be warm enough for your pets to spend time outside. This means that they will be exposed to fleas left behind by other pets, wild/feral dogs and cats, and wildlife such as raccoons, opossums, etc. Fleas are small insects that feed on the blood of humans, dogs, cats, and other warm-blooded animals. Fleas prefer to live on dogs and cats. They may also be found on humans and other warm-blooded animals. Pet owners may not be bothered by fleas until their pet has been gone for a long period of time. Fleas look for other sources of food and begin to bite humans. Bites often occur around the waist, ankles, armpits, and in the bend of the elbows and knees.
Fleas are a common problem of dogs and cats. Adult female fleas lay 4-8 eggs after each blood meal. The eggs are laid on and among the pet’s hairs, not stuck/glued. As the pet rests or moves about, these microscopic eggs drop onto the floor or furniture or surface below where they hatch into larvae. If conditions of high moisture, warm temperature, and food (dried blood from adult fleas) are available, they eventually develop into adult fleas. Once on the pet, the adult flea remains there until their death. It should be noted that cats are very good groomers and will kill and remove up to 50% of the fleas on their bodies. Unfortunately, dogs are not nearly as efficient at grooming.
Fleas are one of the more important pest insects because they not only cause discomfort by biting, but they can transmit several diseases. Fleas transmit not only a variety of viral, bacterial and rickettsial diseases to humans and other animals, but also protozoans and helminths. These diseases include bubonic plague and murine typhus to humans through infected rats.
There are a few options to prevent fleas from entering your home. Some of these options involve your pet, while others require mechanical changes to the environment. By using multiple options, you can help ensure fleas do not enter your home and bother your family.
Your pets are not the only animals that travel in your yard and deliver fleas on your property. Stray dogs and cats as well as naturally occurring wildlife are the major source of fleas. If other animals persist, they can be a major source of fleas that will be tracked into your home. Wild animals such as opossums, raccoons, chipmunks and other small rodents can carry fleas.
Try to discourage these animals from entering your yard by keeping your trash inaccessible, eliminating potential homes for these animals, and by not leaving food out for them. Even if you do not have any pets, fleas can be carried into your home by your family. Adult fleas respond to movement, vibrations and carbon dioxide. By simply walking around and breathing, you are attracting fleas to you.
By eliminating the habitats in your yard where fleas are most likely to occur, you will take the first proactive step for prevention. Fleas tend to like it where it is moist, warm, shady, and where there is organic debris. They will also tend to be where pets spend more of their outdoor time such as patios, dog houses, etc. Rake away leaves and grass clippings to reduce the number of places fleas can live.
On the inside of your home, you can vacuum your home on a regular basis to help pick up fleas. Vacuuming will suck up many flea eggs and disrupt their reproductive cycle. This will also remove dirt and debris that flea larvae use to create a water tight cocoon. The debris that they use also helps to camouflage the pupa while it develops. Adult fleas consume blood as they feed. Fleas leave behind droppings that have blood remnants in them. These droppings dry out quickly and are left behind for flea larvae to develop. Thorough cleaning of a home (especially where your pet sleeps) will greatly reduce the likelihood of fleas become entrenched in your home.
For your pet, there are a few options for ongoing coverage. Have a veterinarian or grooming salon shampoo your pet with a flea-control product or purchase a product that you can apply to your pet on a regular basis. The problem with the first two options listed above is that many fleas have become resistant in varying degrees to the pesticides contained in these products. Although these products will have some other value for other parasites such as ticks and mites, their level of control for fleas can be hit or miss at times. Flea & Tick Collars can be effective, but must be applied properly. To get the right degree of snugness, you should just be able to get two fingers between the collar and your pet’s neck. Some collars lose effectiveness when they get wet, so make sure you verify how long they will last in the environment by reading the label.
If fleas get into your home, you will usually need to take a 2 tier approach to resolving the issue. You will need to visit your vet and have a pesticide treatment given to your pet. This can be a shampoo, a topical application or an oral dose given to the pet. Be cautious about over the counter applications since the dosage is determined by weight. A veterinarian will be able to determine what your best option is for your pet. Flea combs are often overlooked for removing fleas. Comb your pet and then place the fleas in soapy water to kill them. Combing a pet is very time consuming, but it will provide some immediate relief for your pet.
A pesticide treatment is usually necessary to resolve a flea issue. Flea problems are not usually resolved in one treatment. Multiple applications are usually required. A product that will kill any adult fleas and also stop the development of eggs and larvae is preferred. Many over the counter treatments use active ingredients that the fleas have developed resistance to. If you choose to treat your home with an over the counter treatment, you may elongate how long it takes to resolve the issue. I usually recommend that a pest management professional performs the treatment since most homeowners do not have the education on where to look for flea harborages.
The pest management professional should apply a flea adulticide and Insect Growth Regulator (IGR) combination to your residence to control fleas. This combination provides knockdown and kill of adult fleas. It also kills the eggs and stops flea larvae from pupating so they do not become adult fleas. It should not wet carpets or damage furniture.
The treatment should affect the egg, larval, and adult stages of the flea life cycle. Unfortunately, no pesticide can penetrate the pupal cocoon so no pesticide can kill the fleas which are in the pupal stage or have not emerged from the cocoon at the time of application.
Before a flea treatment can be properly done, it is necessary that you do the following in order to make the flea treatment successful:
- Remove all items such as toys, pillows, and magazines from off the floor or carpet, including closet floors.
- Remove all items or articles from under the beds and other furniture.
- If the pet is a cat, thoroughly clean all areas frequented by the cat, such as table tops, refrigerator tops, window sills, counters, etc.
- The day before treatment, either discard the pet’s bedding in an outside trash can and replace it with new bedding, or wash the bedding in a hot detergent solution and dry it in a dryer.
- If the pet sleeps on a bed, strip and clean the bedding the day before treatment.
- Vacuum ALL upholstered furniture, floors and carpeting, paying particular attention to:
- The foot of furniture on which the pet rests.
- Under furniture.
- Floor-wall and floor-furniture junctions.
- Upholstery folds and tufted areas of overstuffed furniture.
- Basement and/or garage floors if present and a pet has access, especially floor-wall and floor-furniture junctions and pet resting areas.
NOTE: If carpeting and rugs are not thoroughly vacuumed just prior to the flea control treatment, some pest management firms may NOT provide any guarantee for flea control.
Be prepared to remove all occupants and pets (including birds) prior to treatment. People and pets must remain out of the building for at least 1 hour after treatment. Cover aquariums and fish bowls and turn off their pumps just before leaving prior to the treatment. Immediately after vacuuming, empty or remove the vacuum bag into a plastic garbage bag, seal the top, and put it in an outside trash can.
For the next 5-10 days, you may see a few fleas. These fleas have emerged from their pupal cocoons after the treatment but will be killed by the insecticide. If these fleas are of concern, be prepared to vacuum every day or every-other day for a week or so. Vacuuming can be resumed after you re-enter your residence. Your pet can pick up fleas outdoors throughout the flea season and/or from other pets with flea problems at any time of the year. However, due to the nature of the flea treatment done in your residence, none of the eggs laid after the treatment described above will develop into adults during the guarantee period.
The more you can do to prevent fleas from coming into your home, the happier your family and pets will be. Remember that most flea treatments take multiple applications, so you will have to be patient while going through the process. A pest management professional will usually be able to resolve the problem faster and provide guidance on how to prevent fleas from reoccurring again.