Flea Control

Did you know:

  • Fleas spend only 10% of their time on your animal?
  • That an average fleas’ life span is 2-3 years?
  • That one female flea can lay up to 1 million eggs during its life?
  • That eggs can live unhatched in your carpet for up to one year until the right environment for hatching occurs?
  • That bark dust, wood piles and ivy are great places for fleas to survive the winter months?
  • That the flea is the second oldest insect (the cockroach is the first) because of its excellent survival mechanisms? 

The Flea Life Cycle

Adult cat and dog fleas prefer to feed on pets rather than people. The pets are closer to the ground and have warmer body temperatures than humans. Second choice would be children – especially infants and toddlers. Female fleas will probe and bite and average of seven times in a “grouping” before locating a blood vessel in the skin. The saliva they leave with each bite can cause a localized allergic reaction (flea allergy dermatitis or FAD as we call it in the veterinary world). After feeding on large amounts of blood, the female flea deposits her eggs and droppings (flea dirt) which consists mostly of undigested blood. Both the eggs (which are white and about the size of a grain of salt) and the droppings (which are black and appear like ground pepper, often in the shape of a comma) drop off the animal’s coat and spread all over the environment.

Here’s a quick home-test to see if your pet has fleas: Lay out a white piece of butcher paper and groom your pet for a few minutes as they stand on the paper. Do you see any black, comma-looking things against the white paper? If so, put a drop of water on it. If it’s flea dirt, the water will turn pink. 

Flea eggs remain in the environment for variable amounts of time and are not destroyed by extremes in temperature or by pesticides. When proper conditions exist, the eggs hatch and release tiny white larvae. These larvae are not able to get around and must rely on the undigested blood left in the droppings for their food source. Larvae are very susceptible to extremes in environment, pesticides, and insect growth regulators. 

Within several days the larvae spin a protective cocoon called a pupae around themselves. The pupae are very resistant to all but steam cleaning and can lie dormant for many months to years. The pupae is the primary stage that overwinters in the environment. When conditions are favorable (warm and moist), the pupae release young adult fleas and the cycle is complete. 

The length of the flea life cycle can vary from a little as one month to as long as two or three years.  

Flea Control Products 

There are many products available to eliminate fleas. They differ in effectiveness, application, safety, convenience, odor of the product, and duration of effectiveness. Sounds pretty complicated, right? It is. It’s actually a chemical nightmare. 

AN EFFECTIVE FLEA CONTROL PROGRAM MUST INCLUDE ALL ANIMALS IN THE HOUSEHOLD AND THE ENTIRE ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH THE ANIMALS LIVE (INCLUDING YOUR CAR). Many people only use one product at a time, which is NOT effective. You must treat the animal, the house, and the yard all at one time to get this challenge under control. 

Control of fleas on the pet: You have your choice of powders, sprays, dips, spot-ons or oral growth regulators. 

Flea Powder: Manufacturers of these products say flea powder is safe to use every 3-4 days on dogs and cats older than 8 weeks of age. The active ingredient, (pyrethrins being the safest and most natural ingredient) takes about 15 minutes to kill fleas when first applied. By the end of 5-7 days, if not reapplied, flea powder works only as a residual, taking up to 12 hours to kill the flea. There is no growth regulator in this product so it only kills the adults. 

Note: Powder should be diluted to half strength with talcum powder when used on puppies and kittens. 

Disadvantages of flea powder: Flea powder can make the coat feel rough and dirty. So, if your pet is already uncomfortable from the fleas and now you are alienating them by not giving them the affection you used to when their coats were cleaner and softer, this makes the problem worse.  The animals do not enjoy flea powder and it may make asthma worse. 

Flea Sprays: Sprays can vary somewhat. Most are alcohol-based and some are more organic than others. The alcohol is for quick kill of the adult and pre-adult stages. Some flea sprays contain an insect growth regulator that will kill flea eggs as well. Make sure you get one with this in it. Pets run when they see you come to them with that bottle after a few applications (they must really like it). 

The only time I use flea spray is when I’m treating a cat for ear mites (I spray some on a Kleenex and wipe their head down after I clean their ears and put medication down both ear canals). I also use it to spray my pant legs when I take walks in the woods during tick season. 

So, could you use rubbing alcohol or vodka to kill the adults? Yes, but using rubbing alcohol can be toxic. Rubbing alcohol contains a bit of methanol, which can cause blindness when ingested. Cats groom themselves and will ingest this. If you want to use alcohol, stick with vodka or Everclear, but it’s really not very effective. 

Duo-cide flea spray does not have alcohol in it and should be used if there are any skin problems involved – it won’t dry the skin out any further. The main active ingredient in Duo-cide is Avon Skin So Soft. Sprays have residual action for up to 3 weeks but the suggested time between applications is 5-10 days. 

Most of the “safe” products used on animals contain pyrethrins or permethrins. Of course they don’t tell you what the “inert” ingredients are. Pyrethrins are a derivative of the Chrysanthemum flower. The sprays can be applied directly to the animal or onto a cloth or towel which is then wiped onto the coat – recommended for cats who are afraid of the hissing sound of the spray bottle. Another way to apply sprays is via a Brushette. 

The Brushette is a rubber brush with hollow fingers. It is useful in getting the spray on the skin where it is most effective. The downfall is that you have to empty the leftover spray back into the bottle after each use and wash the Brushette thoroughly or the little slits in the rubber fingers will start to crust over with dried spray. When this happens, the next time you want to apply the spray, it dribbles more than what you need all over the animal and drips all over the floor as well. What a mess. I never did sell very many of these gimmicks. 

Herbal insecticides include pennyroyal (very toxic), clove, citronella, and eucalyptus oils (diluted of course). These can be mixed in with shampoos or applied to a material flea collar. They can be very irritating when applied directly to the skin. They should not be put directly onto the coat either because when the animal grooms himself or herself they will ingest it. In general, pets hate this type of flea control and only submit to it in a learned helplessness type of situation. Smells good though, and some of those collars are pretty cute!

Flea collars are only minimally effective in the control of fleas. Most collars contain dichlorvos, which is released as a vapor. They are sold under several trade names. Dichlorvos is toxic to animals and people and can cause severe reactions occasionally.

Flea collars are more effective on cats and small dogs under 20 pounds. You should cut off the extra collar so that it does not hang down. Purchase collars with built-in elastic on them in case your pet gets the collar stuck on something. When they panic from this, at least they can break the collar off of their neck and not strangle to death. I’ve heard a few horror stories over the years about collars that choked animals.

I also recommend that flea collars be cut into 2-inch pieces and placed in your vacuum cleaner bags. Store the remainder of the collar in a sealed bag for future use. Some collars such as the Ovitrol collar are now effective against flea eggs as well. The highest rated collar besides the Ovitrol is the Escort collar. Remember, flea and tick collars don’t work well for animals over 20 pounds. 

Note: Collars are especially harmful to Persian cats. They may also cause localized reactions around the neck. 

Ultrasonic collars are ineffective and may cause hearing loss in your pet. Ultrasonic collars are an expensive gimmick. Don’t fall for this. 

Dips which kill fleas and mites for several days or weeks are highly toxic and should not be used for routine flea control. One study found that more than 3 dips per year led to an increased incidence of cancer. Wear gloves if you decide on this method of flea control (although I have no idea why you would). Try to pick a non-organophosphate (OGP) type with a growth inhibitor in it. Gee, seems like people could come up with safer projects than the annual dog dip–for everybody included. 

Pour-on and Spot-on products containing organophosphates are also very toxic. Organophosphate spot-on kills the fleas only after it bites the pet and sucks its blood. These products are also dangerous where infants are concerned. Do not let a small child be exposed to the pet for at least 24 hours after these products are used. I have heard of instances where the parent found a dead infant the day after putting this on the family dog who slept with the child. They are applied once every two weeks. A good rule of thumb is “if a little is good, a lot is NOT necessarily better.” Use only the dose specified on the bottle. Make sure you know the weight of the animal before you dose them. Make note of the next paragraph. 

Common side effects to flea products may include hypersalivation, vomiting, and diarrhea. Some animals appear to foam at the mouth, others stagger about. Their pupils dilate and they seem disoriented. The best treatment is to remove the product from the animal’s skin or body. Bathe your pet immediately. Some animals may need to be treated by a veterinarian with atropine or steroids to help the animal deal with the toxicity and in some instances to save their lives. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to call your vet. 

One product on the market seems to be working quite well and is minimally toxic. It is called Advantage. Advantage is a spot-on with a growth inhibitor, which works for 3-4 weeks. It permeates the fatty layer of the skin. It should be applied after the bath because bathing leeches the product from the skin. For dogs that swim regularly, this product may not work as well as others such as Program. If Advantage is not working for you, you are most likely not following a total flea control program of treating all animals in your house, premise spraying the house, the car and treating the yard as well. 

Occasionally I have seen Advantage react locally with the skin causing the hair in that area to fall out, but this is rare. 

Program is an oral product that contains growth inhibitor. It is given once a month and literally sterilizes the adult fleas so they cannot produce any eggs. It is very safe for both the animal and owners. The animals don’t mind the taste in most cases and it is very effective when used with environmental control. Some forms of Program also include a heartworm preventative and monthly roundwormer (pyrantel pamoate).  This product is especially recommended for flea problems of a larger magnitude and for long term maintenance. It’s not a good product for the flea allergic pet, however because the flea still needs to bite the pet to ingest the growth inhibitor. 

I am often asked about Frontline products. I will have to say that I have never muscle-tested this product to be safe for any pet. It sure is popular and sells like crazy (I don’t carry it). I don’t know why, but Advantage and Program seem to be the safest products with the fewest chance for side effects. 

Flea Shampoos provide no protection once they are rinsed off. They can provide temporary relief (a few hours with severe infestation of the environment) and will kill the fleas on the animal at the time of the bath. They are good in getting rid of the flea dirt on the skin, but they also dry the skin out and are not good for dogs with dry/flaky or oily/greasy skin. It’s better to choose the correct medicated shampoo for your pet in these cases. 

Apply flea spray, powder, or Advantage to the pet after the bath for longer lasting results. Any animal having skin disease along with the flea problem should see your veterinarian for proper treatment and recommendations regarding diet, shampoo and treatments. 

I’m sorry to say that B-Vitamins, Brewer’s Yeast, Garlic, Cedar Chips and Herbal Flea Collars will not kill fleas. They do, however, make the skin smell bad to the flea and will deter them. Scientific studies show a decrease by 20% in the flea numbers with the use of these products 

Note: Cedar chips and shavings can be harmful to your pet’s skin. The slivers off the chips can embed into the skin and cause tumors (that goes for rats too!). The essential oil of the wood is also very toxic and has been known to cause cancer. 

Avon Skin-So-Soft is used by itself as a flea deterrent and is in Duo-Cide products. To use this product, add 2 tablespoons Skin-So-Soft per pint water in a pint spray bottle. Shake well just before using each time–it is an oil/water interface. Skin-so-Soft may make the coat oily and you may have to wash the pet more often as the dust will stick to this oil more readily. If your pet has allergies, this would not be a good choice. The goal is to reduce allergen exposure on the coat for allergic pets. This product would help the pollens to adhere to your pet causing more problems. 

Flea combs are highly recommended for animals that cannot tolerate flea products. The challenge is to get the owners to use the comb as often as necessary to help the animal–every day. Grooming can be biweekly after you comb off no more fleas for several days in a row. Continue to use the flea comb daily for those flea-allergic pets. Fleas need to be crushed with a thumbnail as they have very hard exoskeletons. 

Some fleas combs are better than others. Try to purchase one that will rake off the adult fleas, eggs, and flea dirt all at once. These combs are also excellent in the prevention of hairballs in cats (and will comb out lice in your child’s hair very effectively). Fleas combs won’t comb through the longer coats very easily–the tines bend and break. I like the kind imported from England. They have a great handle you can palm and metal tines that can really take a beating (or grooming).  I also use my flea comb to comb out the winter coats on my pets. They cost about $7.00. 

Treating the Pet’s Environment

In general, the products used in the environment can be more toxic and last longer than those which are applied to the animal. Never use these products directly on your pet or children unless the bottle states it is safe to do so (even then, I would question this). 

Where young children and infants are concerned, more importance is placed on safety than effectiveness. This is why it is important for you to be involved in the choices of products for your home and pets. Here is a photo of flea bites in a human. Notice the grouping of bites characteristic of flea infestation. A flea will bite and probe for blood. If there is not blood they bite again and again in the same general location until they hit a gusher.

flea bites on humans Flea Control

Flea Bites

Premise control products kill only the susceptible stages of the fleas at the point in time they are used. They are fairly safe and can be used as the main environmental treatment in homes that have birds and fishes as pets. The frequency of fogging and spraying depends upon the temperature and humidity, degree of flea infestation, the traffic of pets in and out, the effectiveness of the products used, and the amount of household clutter in which fleas can hide. 

Foggers are designed to cover large enclosed areas and are set off while all occupants (including pets) are away. They are most effective in empty spaces and in crawl spaces. In homes with furniture or items covering the floor they are not very effective. Foggers can take care of up to 80% of the problem. Make sure you get one with a growth inhibitor in it. 

When using foggers, remove all living things from the premises. Cover your fish tanks and remove all the birds. Read labels prior to using any foggers or premise sprays. Because the insect growth regulator Methoprene is also removed with vacuuming, vacuum or steam clean before using them and wait at least 4 days after fogging to vacuum. Foggers are basically gone after 10-15 vacuumings. 

Put your dollars into growth inhibitor products for most effective and economical results.  

Premise Sprays are designed for spot treatment or for difficult to reach areas and for areas which are not enclosed such as a back porch or doghouse. Use premise sprays for the baseboards, under the furniture, and between the couch cushions and around the edges of the water bed mattress. 

These products last 2-3 months, are not as easily vacuumed up (they last for 20-30 vacuumings) and are very good for high traffic areas and for continuous protection. These products are broken down and become ineffective by the sun’s rays. Use them for touch up in well-traveled pathways in the house where you may vacuum more often. Don’t forget to treat your car if you pets travel with you (even just once to the vet). This product is effective and a good use for your dollars. 

Yard and kennel sprays are for outdoor use and should be used in accordance with manufacturer recommendations. Most fleas live within a 30-foot radius of the building – where most pets spend their time. These sprays can be purchased at your veterinarian’s office, pet shops, on-line, or at the local garden store. 

Nematodes that eat flea larvae: A few years ago I carried a natural product of nematodes to sprinkle on your lawn that would kill the flea larvae. That would be a great product if it were effective. The downfalls to this product were that it had to be kept wet (who can afford their water bills as it is), the expiration dates are short, it is expensive, and one can does not go far.

Malathion and Sevin are the sprays used most frequently for the yard, but get inactivated by sunshine and they will not last over 3-7 days. Spray them after the sun has gone down and when you know it won’t be raining for a day or two. 

Housekeeping can be an extremely effective flea control measure. Vacuuming will remove flea eggs, pupae and the flea droppings used by the larvae for food. Vacuum up some flea powder or add a piece of flea collar to each new bag or burn the vacuum sweepings to prevent fleas from completing their life cycle in the compost heap or trash bag. 

A note about worms: When fleas (or mice) are ingested by your pet the tapeworm (cestode) is allowed to finish its life cycle. If you see rice-sized segments sticking to the hairs around the rectum of your pet or see the segments or “ribbon or noodle-like” worms in the stool or on the animals bedding you should contact your veterinarian for a drug to treat them. Over-the-counter worm preparations only treat nematodes (roundworms) and are not effective against tapeworms. Worming may be necessary as often as every three weeks (the life cycle of the tapeworm) depending on the severity of the flea problem. 

When in doubt (especially for large dogs, which can be very expensive to worm,) bring in a fresh stool sample for a floatation. The floatation may not show eggs even though your pet has worms. My recommendation is to worm your pets if you are seeing fleas with a good tapewormer (I use Cestex) and worm twice a year with pyrantel pamoate (also called Nemex or Strongid-T) roundwormer. Piperzine is useless these days for roundworming and no longer works at all in cats. The grocery store doses are ineffective. 

If you have wormers at home and would like to try to use them up first, call your vet. We need to know the chemical name (scientific name) to be able to tell you if you have the proper medication. NEVER give a store bought wormer to a pet that is sick unless your vet is consulted first. You may cause some severe problems–especially with triple wormers. I once had a relative give her pregnant dog a triple wormer. The dog strained so much that her uterus burst and she died. 

Diatomaceous Earth: Not all diatomaceous earth (DE) is alike. Stay away from filtration types. All DE that is used for filtration purposes (pools, spas, etc) has undergone chemical and heat treatment. The heat treatment greatly increases the percentage of crystalline silica, which poses a serious inhalation risk. DE has high crystalline silica content and some DE has high levels of arsenic in it. Our local organic people recommend Perma-Guard (www.perma-guard.com). Another brand to use that is safe is Biconet. Only natural untreated DE should be used for insect control. 

How does DE work? The dust clogs their breathing apparatus so they suffocate. 

Note: When I had my practice in Oregon, there was a natural pest control agency in the area. They used DE in the carpets, let it sit overnight and had the owners vacuum it up the next day. The problem I saw with it was that the cats would get under the bed where the vacuum didn’t and they would come in with a bad case of asthma from breathing in all that silica dust. Only you can decide what will work best for your environment. If you are a multiple chemical sensitive person like I am—well, you may want to move to a place where there are no fleas, but if you can’t do that and have to use chemicals then there are homeopathics to take to remove those toxins from your system. It’s a slippery slope for sure. 

Mopping with soap and mild bleach water is quite effective for flea control in those houses with no carpets. Many of my clients with flea allergic animals and inhalant allergy children eventually change over to hardwood floors and linoleum. 

Flea attractant lights. What a racket. Don’t waste your money on this gimmick. You’ll see fleas in the pan of soapy water but how many eggs have they laid before they got there? Millions? 

White dishes filled with water and Joy dish soap: I suspect if you are attracting fleas to this kind of contraption that you have a severe infestation and should think about doing something a bit more effective. 

SUMMARY: 

For best results go for total flea annihilation. Buy all the products at one time and do it all in one day. Why not entice your neighbors to do their flea control the same day for better effectiveness? Start at the beginning of flea season and treat monthly until there is no evidence of fleas or flea dirt on your pets. I’ve noticed that the flea cycle will be really bad every 3 years. This means it takes that long after a good flea control one year to build up to an intolerable level again. 

If you are serious about keeping your environment free of fleas or have a pet with flea allergies I would treat the environment once a year as a preventative measure after you get the problem under control initially. Start after the last frost. Treat the yard and possibly the house. Keep your pets on a monthly dose of Program or Advantage and have a worry-free summer. Good Luck!