By Dr Joanna De Klerk
Nobody likes the thought of creepy crawlies all over their four-legged friend. Not only are they pretty disgusting, but they are also a nuisance for your furbaby, and can cause some serious discomfort. However, treating them is not as easy as you might think.
In this article we will discuss all the different ways of treating fleas, and remember, you need to tackle the flea problem from multiple different angles!
What Are Fleas?
Fleas are blood-sucking parasites, which can be seen as tiny black or brown specks on your pet. They run quickly and jump extremely far (almost a foot!), so if your pet only has a small number of fleas, you could easily miss them.
While there are over 2000 types of fleas worldwide, the most common fleas on pets are Ctenocephalides canis and Ctenocephalides felis. These are dog and cat fleas respectively, but dog fleas can infect cats, and cat fleas can infect dogs. In fact, both can also bite humans too! They also live in your home and soft furnishings.
Fleas go through four stages in their lifecycle, and it is important to understand the lifecycle to be able to effectively treat them. Fleas hatch from eggs as larva. They love warm areas, such as your carpet, bed or sofa at this stage. Then the larvae form cocoons during the pupa stage, and eventually hatch to become adults. This is when they infest your pet. This whole process can take around three of four weeks, and adults can live anywhere between a couple of weeks and several months.
Adult fleas on your pet only account for five percent of the whole flea population in your home, and therefore, treating your pet and your home is vital to eliminate the problem.
What Are the Symptoms of Flea Infestations?
A flea infestation can vary in severity depending on the animal. In addition to this, it is possible for pets to have allergies to fleas (especially cats), and have very severe skin reactions. The following symptoms are the most common signs that your pet has a flea infestation:
- Itchiness and scratching
- Areas of hair loss or self-trauma
- Red spots on the skin
- Red and inflamed skin
- Visible fleas within the fur, especially around the base of the tail, inside of the back legs and around the neck
- Insect bites on yourself
- Specks of red-brown dirt in the coat (this is known as flea dirt)
Presence of flea dirt, whether or not you see live fleas, confirms that there are fleas in the environment, feeding off of your pet. Flea dirt is digested blood which the fleas have fed on. If you are not sure whether it is flea dirt or simply dirt, you can put some on a damp, white kitchen paper towel. If it is flea dirt, it will leave a red-brown stain on the paper towel.
Treating Fleas on Your Pet
Treating your pet tackles adult fleas. Not only does it kill or remove the adult fleas on your pet, but if you use a flea treatment with residual action, it also continues to kill newly hatched adults which are jumping on your pet for the first time.
There are many different options for treatment options which include:
- Shampoo flea treatment: Shampoos don’t often have residual action, but they are a good option if you want to kill all the fleas on your pet, before applying a treatment with residual action. They also help to soothe itchy skin.
- Topical flea treatment: Topical treatments usually come in the form of a spot-on pipette, which you apply to the skin on the back of the neck. Most have a residual action of about four weeks, however some brands are longer. Do not bath your pet for a couple of days after applying a topical treatment to ensure you don’t wash it off before it has all soaked into the skin.
- Oral flea treatment: Oral treatments usually come in the form of a tablet or meaty treat. Their residual action can vary in length, from no residual action to over two months of effectivity. The benefit of these is that they don’t leave residue on your furbaby, so you don’t have to worry about your pet becoming wet, or your child stroking your four-legged friend.
- Flea collars: Medicated flea collars last the longest. They can prevent fleas for up to eight months and are very convenient. They are expensive, however, if you look at the cost per month basis, they are often cheaper than other types of treatment.
- Home remedies: Home remedies are not often effective at killing fleas. They usually involve sprays containing essential oils, such as lavender oil, or apple cider vinegar. You can also purchase natural flea collars with essential oils in. While they might help to repel fleas, they do not kill fleas effectively. Therefore they should not be used for treating flea infestations. In addition to this, most essential oils are highly toxic to cats, and should be avoided.
- Flea combs: If you want a natural way to remove fleas from your pet, a flea comb is effective at combing out the critters. However, it doesn’t prevent fleas from the environment jumping straight back on, and therefore, treating the environment is essential.
Treating Fleas on Other Animals
Treating fleas on other animals in your house is important, even if you don’t notice any fleas on them. Dogs, cats, rabbits and ferrets can all transmit fleas to one another, and be a breeding ground for adult fleas and therefore a constant source of infection.
When treating other pets in your house, never treat them with the same product without first ensuring it is safe. Many dog flea treatments are fatal for your kitty. Flea products containing pyrethrum-based ingredients, labelled as pyrethroid, pyrethrum or permethrin are highly toxic to our feline friends and should be avoided.
Treating Fleas in Your House
Treating your house is as important as treating your pets when it comes to eradicating fleas, as this is how you get rid of the eggs and larvae. There are several different ways you can treat your house, and a combination of all of them will ensure you’ve got on top of the problem. These include:
- Vacuuming: Don’t just vacuum the floor, but also the beds, curtains, cushions and sofas. It will suck up the majority of the infestation as well as stimulate any eggs left behind to hatch. Eggs are relatively resistant to insecticides, so stimulating them to hatch is a good thing.
- Washing: Hot wash all items which can fit in the washing machine. This includes dog beds and rugs, and anywhere your pet likes to lie which has removable covers. Heat and soap combat fleas very effectively.
- Steam clean: Anything you can’t wash, clean with a steamer. This includes carpets and curtains, and anywhere your pet likes to lie.
- Aerosol Sprays: Insecticide aerosol sprays can be applied to the house after vacuuming, washing and steaming. Pet-friendly sprays are available to purchase from your vets and online, however for some, you must vacate the room for a period of time afterwards. Ensure you follow the instructions so that the correct amount of spray is administered to the surface area, and don’t forget those dark, warm places such as under the sofa.
Treating Fleas in Your Garden
If your pet loves to spend time in the garden, you might want to consider treating that area too. While it is not as much of a hotspot for fleas, especially in the colder months, it can still be a source for flea infection. These are several ways you can treat your garden:
- Mow the Lawn: Fleas love to live in long grass. Make sure to bag the cut grass though.
- Remove Debris: Dead leaves and plants, as well as bushes, create hiding places for fleas. Try to increase the amount of sunlight reaching the ground by removing as much debris as possible.
- Sulphur Granules: Sulphur both repels fleas and interferes with flea eggs from hatching. Not all sulphur products are pet-friendly though, so be sure to pick one which won’t harm your furbaby.
- Garden Treatments: Various different insecticidal garden sprays are available for outdoor areas. Not all treatments are suitable for all plants, nor are all treatments pet-friendly, so read the bottle carefully before applying.
Problems with Flea Treatments
You have probably heard the term ‘resistance’ muttered among people when talking about flea products. There are many flea products on the market, but if you look at the ingredients, many of them have the same combination of active ingredients. That means gradually over time, the fleas which survive the treatment will multiply and create a population of fleas resistant to a particular product.
However, the most common cause of resistance isn’t simply bad luck; it’s incorrect use. Not providing a full dose can enable some fleas to survive treatment. For example, you might have put on a spot-on treatment onto your pet’s hair, rather than the skin, or accidentally washed it off the next day. Or maybe you tried to stretch the household flea spray to do the whole house, when there wasn’t actually enough to do more than half the house. Therefore, proper use is absolutely vital when it comes to flea products to ensure they are effective.
Take Home Message
Fleas are nasty little critters which can cause your fur-child to become really uncomfortable. They require dedication to stamp out the infection, and simply washing with flea shampoo won’t do. But the good news is, there is plenty of choice of products to help your furry friend get rid of them. Nevertheless, fleas can cause allergies and severe symptoms, so if your pet is particularly struggling, you should seek the advice of your vet.
Treating Your House
This is where the real problem lies. Fleas can really spread around your home and become a pain to fully remove.
Firstly, vacuum the whole place thoroughly.
We mean carpets, rugs, beds, curtains, cushions and sofas, too! This does two things – it mops up the majority of the infestation, and it also vibrates the eggs and larvae left behind, which encourages their development into adults. Try to use a really powerful vacuum, with attachments which can get into all of the cracks and corners.
In adult form, fleas are more vulnerable to insecticidal attack. When you have finished vacuuming, empty the vacuum cleaner, and dispose of the contents – preferably by burning them. A bin bag full of fleas is a potent flea bomb! Vacuums with bags are a great idea as the whole thing can be gotten rid of and none remain behind.
Secondly, wash and steam it all.
Clean what you can in the washing machine on as high a heat as possible, and dry ASAP so it doesn’t become infected again. High heat and soap are a fleas enemy. Steam clean anything you can’t physically wash, such as carpets or curtains, paying attention especially to where your pet likes to lie down.
If the problem is particularly bad and you have items which are replaceable, such as bedding, you may wish to do this.
Then, use chemical treatments.
You will need to spray the whole place with a long-lasting insecticide. Products such as “Staykil”, “Acclaim”, and “Indorex” will all be suitable. And when you spray the hose, spray every square inch of every carpet in every room of the whole house. Under the sofa, under its cushions, on top of them, the bottoms of the curtains, under the mattresses of the beds, in the pet beds, and everywhere else that’s made of fabric. If your pet(s) go in the car, then spray inside the car too.
There are various other forms available, such as flea bombs which can be left to disperse in a room over time by themselves, or heat lamps with sticky pads which can mimic a pet’s warmth and attract them from carpets before killing them on contact. With some of these, you won’t be able to breathe anything in or go near the room for a certain amount of time, so choose one which suits your lifestyle.
After using these, always vacuum, wash your dog and clean everything again to double-check.
The Flea Treatment Is Suddenly Not Working!
Has the treatment you chose a few years ago seemed to suddenly become ineffective? It could be worth switching to another brand with different chemicals.
You will likely see the same chemicals used over and over again between brands, but many use different combinations. It could be a case that the fleas have become immune to a certain chemical, so it will take another type to clear everything up.
If The Problem Persists
Finally, if you have tried everything but your pet is still sore, itchy, and fed up with fleas, take it to the vet.
Under these circumstances, your pet may be showing an allergy to fleas so treatment is not as effective. They will probably need short-term treatment with steroids and perhaps antibiotics, to relieve the acute symptoms, while you attack the long-term problem with proper flea control. Vets can also prescribe higher-strength treatments, and you may need to get in some professional help for the home issue.
If they are displaying symptoms listed above but you see no sign of fleas, also take them to a vet. They could have other health issues which topical flea treatments could inflame, so check before you start to use them.
Treating Other Animals
Wondering how to get rid of fleas on your rabbit, guinea pig or other small pet?
Firstly, never use treatment only suitable for dogs or cats. Small pets have very fragile immune systems, so using something too strong can be fatal.
Most animals can also have topical treatments or tablets but always talk to your vet before buying anything to see what would be suitable for your pet and ensure that they will be able to handle the dosage. Clean their cage/house fully, and keep them separated from other pets until the problem has gone.
Prevention isn’t always possible with these animals, so keep any other pets in your home flea-free and regularly groom your small pet.