Fleas are small in size, but they cause untold misery to our pets. Each year we spend billions to get rid of them. At one millimeter in length, fleas are hard-shelled six-legged insects with powerful jaws and sucking mouths that must feed on blood to survive. They are wingless, but since they possess the uncanny ability to leap seven feet high and thirteen feet across a room, it's a snap for them to hop aboard a passing dog.
A flea can jump as high as seven feet and as long as thirteen feet with the G-force of a rocket being launched.
Fleas thrive year-round in warm Southern climates and come out with the first flowers of spring everywhere else. In the Northeast, they peak in August and September. No matter where you live or how harsh the winters, they can live in your house year-round.
The flea completes its life cycle in about a month, from egg to larva to pupa to adult. Once they have had a blood meal, they reproduce at an alarming rate, sometimes laying thousands of eggs. Though the adult fleas can live happily on your dog, the eggs they lay fall into the carpet, the yard, your dog's bed, or wherever the dog travels.
Besides causing the incessant itching and scratching that drives dogs and their owners crazy, fleas can make your dog sick. When they bite, the saliva they inject into the dog can cause an allergic reaction, ranging in severity from hair loss and sores to illness and disability. Some dogs lick and bite at themselves to the point of causing lick granulomas. These wounds become infected, are stubborn to heal, and can cause permanent damage. In extreme cases, infections can lead to thickened hairless skin, permanent sores, and limb amputations. Although each flea bite takes only a tiny bit of blood, a lot of bites can cause anemia. Very young and very old dogs are most at risk for this. Fleas also carry tapeworms, transmitted when the dog ingests the fleas while licking itself. To add insult to injury, fleas like to bite humans, too.
The adult fleas you see on your pet are only the tip of the iceberg. In a serious infestation, the eggs, larvae, and pupae in your home and yard account for the 95 percent you don't see.
Here are some surefire ways to determine whether your itchy dog has fleas:
Push the hair by its tail against the grain and look at the skin. You may not see the fleas themselves, but if you see what looks like salt and pepper, that is a combination of flea eggs and feces.
Look at the dog's belly and groin. Hair is sparse in those areas, so it's easier to spot fleas.
Run a fine-toothed flea comb through the coat. If you come up with the pesky pests on the comb, drop them into rubbing alcohol, soapy water, or flea spray to kill them.
Place your dog on a white towel or sheet, and comb or brush the coat. Fleas or their feces, tiny black specks, will drop off and be visible on the light-colored surface.
If you discover the tiny terrors, your work has just begun. Flea control is not a one-shot deal. It takes persistence and vigilance to keep these little bloodsuckers at bay.
You need to get rid of fleas on the dog as well as those in its environment. You can book the dog at the groomer's for a flea bath, and schedule a professional exterminator to come while the dog is away from home. You can also buy products to use on the yard and home yourself (not advisable if you are pregnant). If you choose to be your own exterminator, begin by washing the dog's bedding, with dry bleach added to the wash. Next, vacuum thoroughly, then throw the vacuum bag, tightly sealed within another plastic bag, into the outdoor trash barrel or dumpster. Now use premise-control spray under the beds and on upholstered furniture, pulling off cushions and pillows to do a thorough job. Be sure to spray the interior of your car as well.
Place all foodstuffs in closed cabinets, and put the dog's dishes in the dishwasher. Then release one flea fogger (also known as a flea bomb) per room and leave the house immediately for three hours. To make sure you have gotten all the little hatchlings, you'll need to fog again in two weeks.
Outdoors, use a lawn-and-kennel spray, concentrating on areas frequented by your dog. Make sure to treat dark damp areas behind the garage or shed, the woodpile, or under the porch while you're at it. During flea season, it's best to spray the outdoor area every week. Together, these options give you a myriad of products to tackle the job of protecting your dog.
Long-acting residual flea products have drastically changed the way we fight fleas. Gone are the days when powders, sprays, and flea collars were our only defenses. Today's flea fighters for our dogs fall into three categories: topical products, oral treatments, and flea collars.
Applied once a month to one spot on your small dog's neck or to a spot between its shoulder blades, these flea-killing substances travel all over its body through the coat oils within twelve to seventy-two hours, wrapping the dog in a protective shield against fleas. Products that kill both fleas and ticks include Frontline and Advantage, both of which interfere with the flea's nerve transmissions. Advantage washes off if a dog goes swimming or gets a bath, while Frontline is waterproof.
Revolution, a wide-spectrum product, also paralyzes fleas and prevents ticks, mange, and mites. These products are available only from your vet, but Biospot, also applied monthly, is sold at pet supply shops and groomers.
Program is a pill that is given once a month and acts as flea birth control. It uses a man-made protein that prevents flea eggs and larvae from developing into adult fleas. Because it does not kill adult fleas on the dog, Program must be used in conjunction with a flea shampoo.
One disadvantage to Program is that the flea must bite the dog to ingest its dose of flea birth control, preventing future generations of hatchlings. For dogs with allergies to flea saliva, even a few bites can trigger an allergic reaction — severe itching and self-inflicted skin damage caused by scratching.
Like Program, Sentinel also uses a manmade protein but combines it with a broad-spectrum parasite fighter called Interceptor, not only sterilizing the fleas but preventing heartworm, whipworm, hookworm, and round-worm as well. Because it doesn't kill adult fleas on the dog, you'll need to use a good flea shampoo with this product too.
A newer product, Capstar, offers no long-term residual effect but knocks out the live flea population on your dog within thirty minutes. It safe for puppies weighing two pounds or more as well as pregnant or nursing dogs and can be used as often as needed with no harmful effects.
Spot-on and pill flea-control products each have their own advantages and disadvantages. For pills to work, the flea must bite the dog. If a dog is highly allergic to flea saliva, a spot-on product would be a better choice. However, some owners don't like the topical products because they can leave a greasy spot on the dog's back.
The old standby in the war against fleas, flea collars offer mixed results. They are more effective on smaller dogs than their larger counterparts because the small dog has less of an area to cover and protect.