Summer Brings Increased Risk of Fleas

Tracy Libby
Dogs with FleasFleas aren't just a danger for one pet  - they can affect the whole household.

Few things wreak havoc on summer fun like fleas. These tiny, nearly invisible creatures have been pestering pets and their owners since the beginning of time, or pretty close to it. One bite from these wingless blood suckers can cause itching for days, and where there is one flea, it’s a safe bet there are plenty more looming in your carpet, furniture, bedding, and on your four-legged friends. Worse yet, some dogs are sensitive to fleas and can have an allergic reaction known as flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), one of the most common skin diseases seen in small animal practices. One flea bite can make a dog's life (and yours!) miserable -- plunging him into a vicious cycle of biting, scratching, and licking.

Despite the yuck factor, fleas (and ticks) are no joking matter, as they also can spread diseases to dogs and humans. The most common risk is tapeworm, which can be transmitted when a dog swallows a flea. Tapeworms can also infect humans, especially kids, who inadvertently ingest a flea. About one-eighth inch long, slightly smaller than a sesame seed, and generally brown or black in color, the cat flea, in serious infestations, also can cause anemia, especially in puppies.

Flea Basics

More than 2,200 species of fleas exist worldwide. In North America, the Ctenocephalides felis, also known as the cat flea, is the most common flea. How ironic is it that the cat flea is responsible for wreaking havoc with your dog?

Fleas feeding on your dog inject saliva that contains different antigens and histamine-like substances, resulting in irritation and itching sensations that can range from mild to downright nasty. Dogs with flea allergies usually itch over their entire bodies, experience generalized hair loss, and develop red, inflamed skin and hot spots. Frequently restless and uncomfortable, dogs usually spend the majority of their time scratching, digging, licking, and chewing their skin. It’s a vicious cycle and a miserable and agonizing situation for pets.

Female cat fleas can produce up to 40 or 50 eggs per day during peak egg production, averaging 27 eggs per day for 50 days. Some females continue to produce eggs for more than 100 days, with some laying up to 2,000 eggs in their lifespan of up to one year. If you live where the temperature freezes, count your blessings. The cat flea is susceptible to cold, and that means it can’t survive more than a few days when exposed to temperatures below 37º F (3º C).

Getting Rid of Fleas

Flea control and treatment recommendations vary with individual situations and can be multi-faceted—depending on the severity of infestation, number of dogs in the environment, and the owners' finances. Thankfully, highly effective flea control products—ranging from once-a-month topical treatments including Frontline, Advantage, and Revolution, to chewable tablets, such as Comfortis—are readily available with varying safety and efficacy. Always check with your veterinarian before using flea-control products.

You also will want to focus on your home and yard, as any effective flea control program includes treating your pets and their environment.

  • Treat any other household pets that can serve as hosts, such as other dogs, cats, and ferrets.
  • Clean everything your dog has come in contact with. Wash his dog beds and blankets weekly. (Some say adding apple-cider vinegar to the rinse discourages new fleas.)
  • Mop floors and vacuum all carpets, rugs, and furniture. Immediately dispose of vacuum bags because eggs can hatch in them.
  • If necessary, remove dense vegetation near your home, dog yard, or kennel area—these spaces offer a damp micro-environment that is favorable to flea development.

Controlling Fleas Naturally

If you prefer to reduce chemicals, toxins, and pesticides from your environment, you might consider one or more natural or organic flea-preventing techniques. Natural flea treatments typically kill and repel pests by causing a pheromone interruption. Organic pesticides are not subject to EPA testing and the efficacy varies depending on the product—and oftentimes depending on whom you ask. However, these may be worth a try. Again, always consult your veterinarian for your dog's specific needs.

  • Diatomaceous Earth (DE) is the fossilized remains of microscopic shells created by one-celled plants. Sprinkled around your yard—or areas of the yard where your dog likes to lie—it kills fleas. Be sure to purchase "food grade" DE. Available online or at most home and garden centers. Do not use chemically treated DE for swimming pool use, as it's not intended for use around pets.
  • Nematodes are microscopic round worms that attack fleas and outdoor pests, but are safe for you and your pets. Purchase nematodes (oftentimes on a sponge that contains about 1 million live nematodes), mix with water, and apply to yard with a liquid applicator. Available through farm and garden shops or online.
  • Wondercide's Evolv—an all-natural flea and tick treatment containing organic cedar oil—kills fleas. Available online or through various outlets.
  • Citronella—as an aromatherapy—is an excellent pest repellent.

For immediate, short-term relief, but not always a long-term solution, consider these tips:

  • Bathe your dog with hypoallergenic or colloidal oatmeal shampoos to help remove allergens.
  • Topical anti-itch creams or oils help to soothe the skin.
  • Fatty acid supplements, such as omega-3 and -6 found in flaxseed and fish oils, are proving helpful in reducing the amount and effects of histamine.
  • Organic coconut oil given orally with a dog's food can help with hot spots and skin irritations. Recommended RX: 1/4 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight.
  • Tea tree oil applied to the skin is excellent for skin irritations, such as rashes and hot spots.

Despite your best efforts, in some cases, your veterinarian may need to prescribe corticosteroids to reduce itching. Success depends hugely on your diligence and compliance.

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