Health Topics

Flea Control

(This article was originally published in the January/February 1999 Issue of Pets Magazine and is reproduced here with the permission of the publisher.)

What are they?

Almost everyone has seen fleas, but in case you haven't, fleas are small, brown, wingless insects, about an eighth of an inch long. They are extremely hardy and fast moving and can easily jump from pet to pet with their powerful legs. The flea's sole source of nourishment is blood, which it gets by sucking on any warm blooded animal. This includes you!

There are more than 2,000 different species and sub-species of fleas known throughout the world, but only a few are found on our pets. The most common is the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis), which infests both dogs and cats.

Life Cycle

The flea spends its entire adult life on the host, mating and laying eggs only while on the pet. These eggs fall off the pet and are therefore deposited anywhere the pet has access to. Thus the largest number of eggs are found in places where the animal spends the most time.

Fleas have an extremely high reproductive capacity and may lay up to as many as 50 eggs a day. Because of this high reproductive rate, the female flea must feed quite often, estimated at 14 microlitres of blood a day. At that rate, it would only take 70 fleas to consume 1ml of blood daily. A heavily infested pet can very quickly become anemic and hence many more times susceptible to other diseases. A tiny kitten can easily be bled to death.

The flea eggs hatch into larvae that feed on debris and flea feces in the environment. This larval stage lasts a week or two after which the larvae spins a cocoon around itself in which it is virtually immune to insecticides.

Flea Control

The fundamentals of flea control are the elimination of fleas on the pet and prevention of subsequent flea generations. This can be done with a combination of several measures.

In order to kill the adult flea, an adulticide must be used. Although these products work fairly well, research has found that there is still a very real potential that some females do survive. Therefore, the addition of another product (an Insect Growth Regulator or IGR) to prevent reproduction is also necessary.

In addition, environmental treatment must also take place. This consists of vacuuming and also a household spray. All areas where pets go, including cushions and pillows, must be vacuumed. Wash all throw rugs and all the pets bedding. This will remove a large number of eggs and larvae. Once you are done vacuuming, immediately remove, seal, and dispose of the vacuum bag.

The "Pupal Window"

The pupa presents the biggest obstacle in any flea control program since insecticides cannot kill the pupa under the super protection of its cocoon. When an adulticide/IGR combination is used and the adult fleas and larvae are killed, the pupae continue to develop into adult fleas and will emerge from their cocoons for the next 2 to 4 weeks. The answer to this problem is to continue using the adulticide during this period.

Treating the Pet

Bathing the pet initially with a soap free insecticidal shampoo ensures initial flea removal, makes the pet feel better, and cleanses the coat from flea feces and debris.

The adulticide is applied to the pet's hair coat and kills most of the adult fleas on the pet within 24 hours. The IGR is given orally on a once a month basis, on a full stomach so that it is absorbed with the food.

Prevention Before Infestation

The easiest way to treat a flea problem is to prevent an infestation from taking place. Start your pets on an IGR well before the flea season and continue it during the season. If you are moving to a new house, vacuum and spray the place before you move in.

If this is done properly, you may never have to use any insecticides on your pet at all.