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Canine Library: PestControl

Flea Control

A multi-pronged attack is best.

Before you can adequately control fleas, you must understand their life cycle. Once adult fleas have chosen a home--your dog--they live their entire lives on that host, feeding on its blood and reproducing. Each female lays 2,000 eggs during her lifetime. Too small to be seen without a microscope, the eggs fall off wherever the infested dog walks or lies. The eggs then hatch into larvae that can be seen by the naked eye. These larvae must feed to live and are sensitive to heat and dryness. They can crawl to the shade of plants and trees or from the center of your carpet to the baseboards or under your furniture.

Flea feces appear a bit like coffee grounds--small dark specks that can be seen when an infested dog's hair is parted, especially on the back and near the base of the tail. If you see flea droppings, even if you fail to find those elusive fleas, adult fleas are present. In addition to the eggs that drop off your pet, the flea feces fall as well. Flea larvae feed on the flea droppings that have fallen off with them.

After feeding, the larvae develop into resistant pupae forms, which can survive for long periods in their cocoons without food or an ideal environment. This form cannot be killed by any of the current products available. The pupae wait for ideal conditions, then quickly hatch into young adult fleas that start looking for a warm-blooded host to jump onto. And so the cycle continues. Often, newly hatched adults jump onto socks or pantlegs for a free ride into the house, transferring to the pet once inside. This is how cats in a high-rise, for instance, that never go outdoors, can become infested with these persistent pests.

Researchers say that for every flea found on a dog, one hundred times that many of the larvae/pupae forms wait in the vicinity. A successful war on fleas must have many battle lines all going at once, and the owner must treat all pets at the same time.

First, bathe all your pets with any good flea shampoo. Adult fleas are easy to kill, and the shampoo gets rid of the breeding pairs on the animal. The bath also washes away the flea feces that feed the larvae in your carpet and lawn. As soon as you rinse the dog, however, it has no flea protection, and within minutes (in a heavily infested environment), newly hatched fleas will jump on. Bathing alone is never enough--it's just a good beginning.

Once your pets are bathed, apply an appropriate flea spray, mousse or dip that stays on the animal's coat and continues to kill new arrivals. By appropriate, I mean something labeled for the species, age and medical condition of your pet. Follow the directions exactly. Your veterinarian or veterinary technician can recommend the right products. Reapply the product for as long as it takes to break the cycle. Although many owners can do this chore at home, groomers and veterinary clinics also provide this service.

These two steps treat only the pets themselves. Next, you must address the other 99 percent of the problem--the environment. Treating your yard, especially if it is large, may seem overwhelming, but you need only concentrate your efforts on the cool, moist areas to which your dog has access. Use a product your veterinarian recommends. Repeat applications according to label directions until the problem is under control.

Burn the doghouse bedding of an outdoor dog, and spray the interior of the doghouse and kennel (while the dog is elsewhere). In parts of the country where the ground freezes in the winter, owners receive help from nature. But in California and other temperate areas, plan on routine applications, probably every other month, even after you gain control. This way, if a straying cat or visiting dog deposits eggs in your yard, you'll eliminate them before they hatch and start a new problem.

The next prong of attack is the house itself. The safest and most efficient method is an area treatment spray that contains Precor (an insect growth regulator). This allows you to work on one room at a time to do the job right. Pick a room and wash everything in it you can, including bedding, slip covers and throw rugs. While the washing machine is going, vacuum the floor and furniture carefully. Vacuuming physically removes large numbers of larvae and pupae as well as the flea feces they feed on. When done vacuuming, burn the vacuum bag or remove it permanently, or the beasties will hatch in the vacuum. Then use the spray according to directions in all the areas that the fleas like, such as under cushions, around baseboards, under furniture and behind appliances. Close the room's door to keep your pets out while the spray dries. Afterward the room will be safe for all except the fleas. Then go on to the next room.

Most sprays containing Precor work up to 30 weeks after application. Be a detective and find other spots your dog might have contaminated (the car, the breezeway, basement areas, the old couch in the garage), and treat those as well.

When using an area treatment, an unusual phenomenon often occurs: There appears to be an increase in flea activity during the first week or two. Many people who have gone through all this trouble complain that it didn't work and say they see more fleas jumping around. Nothing kills the pupal form, and vacuuming and other activity stimulate the pupae to hatch into adults, which explains the appearance of more fleas. Fortunately, these new pests will soon be killed on the pet, when it is sprayed or bathed, or in the environment by the residual action of the spray. You've removed all those pupae out of the environment so they won't hatch next year. Be patient, and soon the whole problem will be under control.

This seems like a lot of work, but it is truly a necessity to do the job right. Once you have control, a maintenance regimen will prevent recurrence. This means routine bathing and spraying, even when you don't see any fleas, to keep the problem from getting out of hand again.

The concern about insecticides and their effect on the animal and the environment can now be tempered with the advent of once-a-month flea pills. They are not inexpensive, but then neither is using all those flea control products, paying the groomer and still contaminating the environment. Talk to your veterinarian about these products, as they are available by prescription only.

Author(s): Wilcox, Bonnie, D.V.M.
Publication: Dog Fancy
Issue Date: January 1996

Canine Library: PestControl