The Fight Against Fleas

We're better armed than ever for the Battle of the Bug. Learn how to keep your pet—and your home—free of fleas.

itchy dogFleas love warm weather, and so do dogs. And the inevitable occurs: Just as the weather entices your dog to spend long, lazy days lounging in the sun, out come the fleas, hungry for a feast.

Will the annual battle against fleas ever end? Chances are, this war will be eternal. “It’s a long-term war, one battle after another,” says James Noxen, DVM, veterinary clinical sciences professor and staff dermatologist at Iowa State College of Veterinary Medicine in Ames.

Ironically, part of the reason our pets probably will never be flea-free: Use of flea-control products forces reproduction of fleas resistant to them, says Dina Richman, an urban entomologist who specializes in flea control in the entomology and nematology department at the University of Florida, Gainsville. “The more fleas are exposed to these products, the faster they develop resistance,” she says “We are forcing nature to select the most resistant fleas because the ones that survive our pest-control efforts are the ones that keep breeding, and they pass on that resistance to their offspring.”

Eternal battle or not, you can win control over a flea problem in your home and on your dog, and do so with greater ease and speed than ever.
Fleas are more than a nuisance. A single bite can send a severely allergic dog into a literal tailspin of itching, scratching and biting called flea bite dermatitis. A severe infestation can make your dog anemic through blood loss, and if it swallows a flea, the flea could transmit tapeworms. In rare cases, fleas can even transmit bubonic plague to humans. You don’t want them around.

Still you find them sneaking up your dog’s tail or leaping from its favorite spot onto you. “My dog was really bad last year,” says Dana Veatch of Atlanta, owner of Bronte, a 6-year-old Boxer. “I tried everything that’s supposed to work. I bombed the house, gave her flea baths, had her on an adulticide and an insect growth regulator, and the next day all she had to do was go outside once and she was covered again. I could see 20 or more fleas on her at one time.” Unfortunately for Veatch and anyone else who lives in a moderate climate, fleas love mild temperatures and high humidity.

But warm locations aren’t the only places fleas favor. Flea problems began for Ben Anderson and his Golden Retriever/American Eskimo mix, Sabbath, in Iowa City, Iowa, and continued when they moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. Sabbath is allergic to flea bites, Anderson says. “Every fall, he’ll scratch himself raw, and his skin becomes so sensitive that even petting him will set him off scratching again.” Anderson uses a spot-on treatment, shaves his dog in early August and bathes him in a medicated shampoo specially formulated to cool the itch of fleabite dermatitis. Sabbath suffers despite his owner’s best efforts and with more than itchy skin. “Every year for the last three years, he’s gotten tapeworms,” Anderson says. “He’ll get them before I even see a single flea.”

How can you keep fleas out of your house and off your dog? Luckily, flea control has advanced in recent years, making it easier than ever.

The most effective course of action: Treat your dog with one a spot-on adulticides, such as imidacloprid or fipronil, and treat either the dog or its environment with an insect growth regulator, such as lufenuron or pyriproxyfen, Richman says. “Adulticides and insect growth regulators target different life stages of the flea. Using an insect growth regulator in conjunction with the adulticide causes those females that survive the adulticide long enough to breed, to lay nonviable eggs. That would be the perfect plan.”

Your Weapons

The adulticides, most commonly applied on your dog’s skin between the shoulder blades, last about a month. Because they spread over the skin but aren’t absorbed into the bloodstream, they are considered less toxic than other products.

Insect growth regulators come in many forms but can be categorized into two classes of compounds: chitin synthesis inhibitors, or CSIs, and juvenile hormone analogues, or JHAs. “CSIs disrupt molting, killing the insect during the process,” Richman says. Also, eggs exposed to a CSI won’t hatch. JHAs prevent the insect from reaching adulthoodimportant because adult fleas are the pest stage.”

Insect growth regulators can be used to treat carpets, dog beds and the yard. Although they’re safe for pets and homes, use as little as possible. “If you are treating your home with an IGR, you may only need to treat your pet with an adulticide,” Richman says. “And only treat your home and yard in the areas your pet frequents. Spraying pesticide everywhere is irresponsible.”

Also consider some of the combination products. One combines the lufenuron and heartworm preventive. Another, a spot-on treatment, combines pyriproxyfen, one of the most effect and long-lasting insect growth regulators, with a pyrethrin-based adulticide. Both products make life with a dog a little simpler.

“The only reason to use other products like flea collars, for example, is cost,” says Kenneth Weigel, DVM, a veterinarian at Palo Alto, California. Monthly use of adulticides and IGRs can get expensive, he says. For mild flea problems, if a less expensive product works and isn’t too toxic, you have no reason to spend more money.

Some natural products have been proven effective, such as limonene and borate powders. Borate powders are best applied by a professional; excessive inhalation can endanger humans and pets. Borates are great if you don’t want to put insect growth regulators in your home; like IGRs, they target immature fleas.

If you have money to spare and prefer a natural approach, they may be worth a try, especially as a preventive or if your flea problem isn’t too severe. But don’t assume “natural” means safe. Some natural products are highly toxic.

Don’t forget the good old-fashioned 100 percent nontoxic flea comb. “I’m a big advocate of flea combs,” says Noxen, who suggested pet owners use them regularly to remove fleas from pets. Bill Fitzgerald of Bartlett, Illinois, companion to a 9-year-old black Labrador Retriever named Tess, also strongly supports flea comb use. “I comb Tess every three to four days, and that takes care of all the fleas,” he says. Fitzgerald also lives in an apartment with wood floors and no carpeting, and vacuums frequently all of which discourage fleas.

Winning the War

Meanwhile, scientist’s research new and better flea-control methods. “There won’t be anything new in the short term, but in the long term, we’ll be seeing a lot of sophisticated attempts to use the animal’s immune system against the fleas,” Noxen says. One way this could be accomplished is through a flea vaccine, which many scientists are researching. “A flea vaccine could go two way,” Richman explains. “The flea could bite the animal, then die because of antibodies from the vaccine. But the trouble with that is the fleas still have to bite the animal, and we want a world where fleas never bite the animal. The other option is a vaccine that works on the animal’s side to prevent a reaction.”
Another area of research is geared toward treating fleabite dermatitis. For sensitive dogs, a single bite can trigger a major reaction within 24 hours.

Pay attention to your pet’s condition through regular grooming, keep in touch with your veterinarian about the latest flea-control methods, then be diligent and consistent about using the flea-control method you choose.

We may never see a flea-free world. But a flea-free home? A flea-free pet? Those goals lie well within your grasp.


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