Fleas: They’re tiny, microscopic pests that can become a huge nuisance. As an external parasite, they can easily hitch a ride on animals of all kinds—including your dog or cat.
Dr. Kevin Reed, a veterinarian at Urban Animal NW in Seattle, frequently sees patients with fleas. “I see patients with fleas multiple times per day during the warm months, but I see animals with fleas every month of the year,” he said. So how can you protect your pets, your home, and even yourself from a full-on flea infestation? We’ve got some simple tips to keep these noxious critters at bay.
How to Identify if Your Pet has Fleas
Frequent and persistent itching and scratching is a key sign of fleas. You may even find small drops of blood or brown specks of flea feces, known as flea dirt, on places your pet frequently sits or sleeps. If you suspect your dog has fleas, start by giving them a thorough combing with a flea comb to see if any flea dirt comes up or if you catch any live fleas. If you find either, it’s safe to assume you’ve got fleas.
Once you’ve identified fleas as the culprit to your dog’s incessant scratching, treatment becomes necessary. A visit to your veterinarian is usually a good first step, rather than trying to do it alone. Dr. Cary M. Waterhouse, veterinarian and owner of Lake Union Veterinary Clinic in Seattle, recommends treatments that contain “insect growth regulators” that kill fleas and other parasites in all their life stages.
“These compounds are very safe for pets and the environment, and are very effective at controlling / preventing a flea outbreak,” he said. He recommends staying away from grocery store options though. “I am NOT a fan of the ‘grocery-store’ variety pesticides that are applied topically—too many adverse reactions (i.e., poisonings), and they just don’t work all that well. In general, products that are toxic to mammals (neurotoxins like chemicals called pyrethrins) are just bad news. Most of these products ONLY kill adult fleas, so a few days after treatment you are right back where you started.”
Convenience is also a factor in determining what type of flea treatment will work best for you and your pets. Dr. Reed gives his pets Bravecto, an oral flea and tick medication, because it lasts three months instead of just one. “I just set a reminder in my smartphone and forget about it for three months at a time,” he said.
And you needn’t worry about the effectiveness of veterinarian-recommended flea treatments—it’s usually owner error that causes them to fail if they do. According to Dr. Waterhouse, “The topical products (Frontline, Advantage, Revolution, etc.) usually fail because of improper application (not getting down to the skin, bathing too soon before or after application). The oral products can fail if the pet does not actually eat it (they spit it out behind the scenes) or if given improperly (i.e., some need to be given with a meal).”
In addition to medicinal treatments, extra vacuuming, washing bedding in hot water, and regularly bathing and combing your dog can help kill the fleas. Diatomaceous Earth is a less-toxic environmental treatment that can also be used to discourage an outbreak. It works by creating micro cuts in the exoskeletons of pests like fleas, so they dry up and die. Other less-toxic treatments are also available, but both Dr. Reed and Dr. Waterhouse caution against using them exclusively to treat fleas. “All natural essential oil flea preventatives have been around for decades —and aside from smelling really good, I have not been impressed with anything about them (I’ve picked many fleas off pets treated with such products), and some seem to be really irritating to dogs and cats (they have a much more sensitive sense of smell than we do),” Dr. Waterhouse said. “In general, if it’s not going to do any harm, I see no problem giving them a try. I just have not been too impressed so far.”
Prevention is Key
Obviously, flea prevention is the the best thing you can do as a pet owner. Once you see an adult flea, more will probably show up before you know it, so don’t wait until it’s too late. “Once the flea population is established in your home, eradication is time consuming and frustrating. It makes sense to start whichever preventative route you wish to take BEFORE there is a problem,” says Dr. Waterhouse.
When asked if you should treat your pet year-round, Dr. Waterhouse has this advice: “It really depends on the pet. With the advent of dog daycare, multi-family living environments (condos and apartments), and the option of taking your dog to work, fleas are thriving indoors even in the cold months. Talk with your veterinarian about pros and cons of options available for your pet, and choose something that is appropriate. Do not rely on marketing, hype, and internet misinformation—but committing to SOMETHING before there is a problem will save your pet (and YOU) some serious itching.”