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At War with the Common Flea

By July 25, 2023 July 26th, 2023 No Comments

By Dawn Todd

I do nutrition and behavior consultations for Noah’s Ark clients. Interestingly, I answer as many questions about fleas as I answer about diets and behavior problems. So, I set out to make myself the flea expert at Noah’s Ark.

I’m going to go into quite a bit of detail in this post, but try to bear with me. Understanding how such a small creature is so difficult to wipe out is more complicated than many people think. A little understanding can save you money (which many people waste on ineffective treatments), and help you defeat this pesky opponent once and for all.

First, you need to understand that our war with fleas is a perpetual one. Why? Because these tiny pests are reproduction machines. Most people I talk to really only think about fleas during the summer months, but the key to having a peaceful summer is treating year round for these tiny tormentors. (If you just want to know what works, go directly to the section titled  “Becoming Flea Free”.)

A Flea’s Life Story in Four Acts

Adult fleas, the ones you can see, account for only 5% of the total flea population. That means for every five live fleas you see, 100 more are in various stages of becoming an adult. The flea’s entire life cycle can be as short as 2-4 weeks, or as long as two years (for instance in an empty house). To understand why fleas are such a persistent pest, it really helps to have a basic understanding of the flea’s life story.

Act One: Once Upon a Time There Was a Very Tiny Egg. Female fleas have just one mission in life, you guessed it – to lay eggs, and it’s something they’re very good at. One female can produce up to 2,000 eggs in her lifetime. In just one day, a single female can lay up 40 – 50 eggs! These eggs are not sticky, they fall off your pet and into the environment. Think of your pet as a “salt shaker”, sprinkling flea eggs wherever they go. Many people think it’s just carpets that provide a place for fleas to hatch, but flea eggs are so small, researchers have discovered they can develop in the cracks of a hardwood floor. In ideal conditions, eggs can hatch in 5-10 days.

Act Two: The Tiny Egg Becomes the Very Hungry Caterpillar. OK, in this story the very hungry caterpillar is called a “larva”. They are tiny little caterpillar like creatures that grow and eventually spin a cocoon. Unfortunately, this cocoon won’t hatch a beautiful butterfly. The length of time for larva to make their cocoon (called a “pupae”) depends entirely on the weather, specifically the temperature and humidity of the environment, whether inside or outdoors.

Act Three: The Pupae’s Patient Wait. The pupae is the flea’s  “cocoon”, the dormant stage in the flea life cycle. The pupae has a very tough protective “armor” and it can’t be killed by any flea control product. In the cocoon or “pupae” stage, the flea emerges in two weeks when it’s 75 degrees with 78% humidity. However, under 50 degrees, that cocoon can lie dormant for close to a year. Rising temperatures, a physical vibration (like you walking by), or carbon dioxide exhaled from any mammal can signal adult fleas to emerge and begin their feeding frenzy. Here, it’s not uncommon for people who return to Franklin after the winter may find that after a house had  been empty for months, they find themselves eaten up by hungry fleas.

The Finale: Victory or Defeat. You Decide. Newly hatched adult fleas lie in wait for something to move by them. Once anything comes between the flea’s light source and the flea, the flea makes an instinctive jump. And boy can they jump. Using high-speed cameras at Cambridge University, scientists watched the tiny flea jump 38 times higher than the length of their bodies. That’s the equivalent of a six-foot tall man jumping to the top of a 28-story building! This unwanted hitchhiker first eats a meal of the unsuspecting host’s blood, and then looks for a mate, all to start the life cycle again. Once an adult flea jumps onto their new home (your pet), they have their first meal in 30- 60  minutes. Females begin laying eggs within 24 hours. An adult flea can live up to four months, and once they’ve found a nice warm, furry home, they don’t come off unless they’re killed (by treatment) or eaten. Cats are particularly good at grooming off (eating) fleas that are bothering them.

The Big Three Problems With Fleas

1. Misery: If your home becomes infested with fleas, it’s pure misery, and it’s going to take a real effort to eliminate the enemy. That’s why I urge people to take steps to ensure you never get an infestation in the first place. When a flea bites you or your pet, a small amount of saliva gets deposited in the skin. Many of us develop an allergic reaction to this saliva, which tends to cause severe itching. Impact varies from people to pet.

2. Anemia: Each season, we see pets at our hospital bitten by so many fleas and/or ticks, they develop full blown anemia. It can be a life threatening condition.

3. Tapeworms: Dogs and cats become infested with tapeworms because they ingest an infected flea. Tapeworm segments can be seen in the stool and look like rice.

Becoming Flea Free Forever

Step 1. Relieve your pet’s discomfort by killing fleas that are on your pet, biting and feeding. To kill all existing fleas on your pets, remember the 3 C’s:-

  • CORRECT FREQUENCY – Apply product to ALL companion animals EACH month. Most people find it easiest to remember if they always apply on the same day of the month.
  • CORRECT APPLICATION TECHNIQUE – If you’re using Frontline Plus, you must part your pet’s coat between the shoulder blades, and apply the entire dose directly to the skin. Hold your pet still for a minute so that the oil can begin to disperse, and your pet doesn’t “shake” a significant amount off. If you’re using Comfortis, you must give this pill with a full meal for maximum absorption. All flea products available from us take from 30 minutes to 24 hours to kill 95% of the adult fleas your pets. Remember, treatment does not mean that new fleas from the environment will not jump on your pet.
  • CONSISTENCY – In your battle against the mighty flea you must be relentless. The biggest single mistake I see pet parents make is to wait until they see adult fleas to resume their war against fleas and ticks. If you don’t start treating until you see adult fleas…you’ve got a project!

Step 2. Eliminate the infestation on the premises. If you continue to see fleas on your pets after they’ve been treated it mean adult fleas continue to emerge in your environment, either indoors, outdoors, or both. These adults re-infest your pets. Although you’ve applied a product, this does not stop new adult fleas from hatching. Many assume that if they see fleas on their pet, the product isn’t working – this isn’t true. If you regularly treat your pet with a Frontline product, fleas that come into contact with your pet’s fur will die, but it does take time. (Less time with Frontline Tritak.) New fleas can jump on at any time. There is NO product available that acts as a “force field” and prevents fleas from getting on your pets. Fleas thrive in temperatures of 50 – 90 degrees, and relative humidity of 50 – 85%. At 85 degrees, flea eggs hatch into adults in less than three weeks. At 65 degrees it can take 7-12 weeks for flea eggs to hatch into adult fleas. The persistence of the flea in its developmental stages makes it essential that you treat all year long. Both Frontline Tritak and Frontline Plus contain an IGR (insect growth regulator). With repeated use, the eggs and larvae will not develop into a cocoon – breaking the flea’s life cycle.

Step 3. Prevent future flea infestations. The most common reason our clients think their flea control fails is because they don’t use product 12 months a year, on all the pets in the house and yard. They stop when the weather gets cold and they no longer see adult fleas. This big mistake lets the flea get way ahead of you as soon as the weather warms up in the spring. It’s important to remember that companion pets are far from the only hosts for fleas. Wildlife is another source of flea eggs. The number one host for fleas is opossums, followed by raccoons, coyotes, rabbits, and feral cats. Interestingly, squirrels and birds are not hosts for the common flea. Sometimes clients overlook other flea hosts in their home like domestic rabbits, hedgehogs, and ferrets. Once a flea finds a host/ home, it stays on that host until it is killed (by flea control products) or groomed off either by the pet or a flea comb. Adult fleas develop where the flea’s host spends most of their time. indoors and out. It’s important to be very thorough in cleaning and clearing areas ideal for flea development. Couch cushions, cracks between hardwood floorboards, cracks around baseboard, pet beds and rugs are key places indoors where eggs can continue to hatch into adult fleas. Outdoors adult fleas do not survive in sunny, bright areas, so treating sunny lawns is a waste. Fleas thrive in shady areas, especially sandy areas under bushes, decks, porches, sheds. These are also areas that opossums, raccoons, and feral cats often hide out. So, if you do treat outdoors, concentrate on those areas, not sunny ones. Many clients feed semi-tame cats at their home. These cats come close enough to feed, but they’re not so tame that they can have flea control applied. We like to “troubleshoot” these cases individually. Even if you don’t feed stray cats on your porch, our area is rich in wildlife. Depending on your property, it may not be realistic to expect to eliminate adult fleas, but we can certainly help you gain reasonable control, and make sure your home does not get infested.

Step 4. Prevent Re-infestation. Once you’ve eliminated an infestation, it’s vital to continue to treat all of your pets year round. Many animals, such as stray dogs, feral cats and wildlife, move through your yard carrying fleas. These flea-infested animals are continually depositing flea eggs in the outdoor environment, which can start the problem all over again. By keeping pets on year round flea preventative, when fleas jump onto a treated pet, the fleas will either be killed or their eggs destroyed before the population of fleas explodes. In this way, future flea infestations of your home and companion pets will be prevented.

What Weapons Are Available at Noah’s Ark?

Nexgard – This prescription medication is the latest and greatest product to come from the makers of Frontline Plus. Kills adult fleas and ticks. Nexgard is a beef flavored chew that is absorbed into the bloodstream. Primarily used for dogs, but is also useful for cats with difficult flea infestations. Begins acting within four hours and stays active for up to 30 days. Covered by Merial’s unique Satisfaction Guarantee.

Frontline TritakApply topically every 30 days. It starts killing fleas in as little as 30 minutes, and ticks in as little as an hour, generally before they attach, which is quite a good benefit for those of us who find ticks absolutely disgusting! Products are available for both dogs and cats. Also covered by Merial’s unique Satisfaction Guarantee. Need help applying to your pets? Just ask us, we’ll apply these products to your pets for you.

Capstar – A very fast acting systemic pesticide. Begins killing adult fleas within 30 minutes after the pill is given. Kills 90% of adult fleas in four hours, but lasts only 24 hours. Provides very fast, but not long lasting relief. Can be used in cats and dogs. We often recommend this product as a way for clients to try to determine whether their pets are picking up fleas indoors, or outdoors. Contact us  if you’re interested in learning more about how this works.

Flea Buster Powder – A great value. Very fine Boric Acid powder. Great for treating your indoor environment: carpets, hardwoods, under cushions. Kills adult fleas as they hatch. Lasts until you deep clean. When you have an infestation, we recommend applying this product in your home, in addition to treating all pets.