Flea control


“Hey Doc,” the voice blares through the phone. I hold the receiver a foot from my ear. ” I think Hoppy has that skin infection back again. Can I get some antibiotics for him?” Hoppy? I scratch my head. Who’s Hoppy? I glance at the record my secretary hands me. Ah, he’s a middle-aged mutt I haven’t seen since 1996. Okay, I exaggerate. His last visit was two years ago. The last time I dispensed antibiotics was long before that.

“What makes you think he has an infection?” I ask, more patiently than I feel after a long, hot summer.

“He’s scratching something terrible and there’s this rash on his stomach. You know, now you mention it, we could use some of those anti-itch pills, too. My wife will stop by and pick ’em up after her hair dresser,” he concludes triumphantly. I recognize this scenario: Mister has a Honey-Do list from Missus. It says “Call Vet For Hoppy’s Pills — Little Pink Ones, Big White Ones.” I sigh.

“What are you using for flea control?” I ask. The conversation continues. Mister thinks he has something for fleas but he’s not sure what. He thinks Missus may have applied it but he doesn’t know when. He doesn’t see any fleas. He knows Hoppy is overdue for a visit but his wife handles that. Can’t we just give her the pills when she comes and they’ll make an appointment later for that other stuff?

Well…no. The law requires a doctor-patient relationship for me to dispense things like antibiotics and corticosteroids, which means I need to actually see Hoppy annually. Besides, it’s just bad medicine to prescribe without a recent exam. And I suspect the problem is more likely infestation than infection. Let’s talk fleas.

This has been the worst flea season I have seen on the Vineyard since the advent of total body flea control products like Frontline and K9 Advantix over a decade ago. Perhaps it’s the hot humid weather. Perhaps the fleas are developing resistance. Whatever it is, every day I see clients faithfully and correctly applying flea products to their pets yet still suffering major infestations. The first step in fighting fleas is identifying the infestation and understanding the life cycle.

The critter hopping on Hoppy is Ctenocephalides felis — commonly known as the cat flea. Yes, there are dog fleas, poultry fleas, even human fleas, but the ones tormenting your pets, be they canines or felines, are almost certainly “cat fleas.” The adult flea lives about three months and spends its entire life on the animal. It can only survive two to four days if removed from the host. Sometimes people don’t realize Hoppy has fleas. “Look, Doc,” they insist, ruffling their fingers through his coat. “I don’t see anything.”

That’s when I pull out my flea comb and pull it quickly down Hoppy’s back , right to the tail base. Now look. Quick. Fleas are fast. Sifting slowly through the fur just makes fleas flee, whereas a rapid stroke by a fine-toothed comb can often catch them. Sometimes my comb only collects black grainy dots. “That’s dirt from rolling in the driveway,” you say. Wrong. Put that black speck on a wet paper towel. Wait a minute. See that rusty reddish ring forming? Since fleas suck blood, their excrement has a reddish hue when wet. That black stuff is flea dirt — the polite term for poop. Nice, huh?

After feeding, a female flea lays tiny white or tan eggs, up to 50 each day, that fall off into the environment when Hoppy scratches, shakes, and just generally moves around. The eggs hatch into small, worm-like larvae that feed on organic debris in the environment. They are very active and mobile and like to go away from light and toward gravity. I call it “down and dark.” If Hoppy sleeps beside the couch, the larvae will crawl under it. On the rug? They’ll burrow deep into the fibers. Wood floors? They’ll go between the cracks.

“I don’t see any worms in my house,” you protest. “My place is immaculate.” This is not a critique of your housekeeping. Fleas happen. (Even as a veterinarian, I had never seen flea larvae until I had been in practice 20 years. I only happened to see them when a client confined a flea-ridden cat to an impenetrable, cloth-lined crate for a few weeks, so the larvae were unable to crawl away after they hatched.) The larvae then spin sticky cocoons that adhere tightly to their surroundings. You can vacuum right over them and not pick them up. Nothing kills these cocoons. Really. Nothing. Well…maybe global thermonuclear warfare.

Here’s where the life cycle gets truly elegant. These pupae can exist for up to a year without a host. You could close up your house today, come back next fall, and within a day of your return, voila, fleas. How does that happen? The pupae respond to vibration, warmth, and carbon dioxide, so when Hoppy comes home, runs to his favorite spot, plops down, and exhales, the pupa recognizes a host has arrived and hatches. The newly emerged flea must get onto Hoppy and feed within a week or two to survive. I don’t know how they tested this, but apparently new fleas jump when they see shadows and this helps them land on a host. (I know there’s a groundhog joke in there somewhere.)

Effective flea control has three aspects. First, kill all adult fleas on all pets in the household, preferably before they have time to lay eggs. Second, treat the environment to kill the massive numbers of eggs and larvae that lurk there, causing constant reinfestation. Finally, use a residual product that continues to kill new fleas as they emerge from their cocoons and hop on Hoppy.

So if you’re having a tough flea year, don’t blame your veterinarian or the flea products. Blame Mother Nature for this adaptive and successful parasite. Get hopping and talk with your veterinarian about devising a specific flea control protocol that’s right for your pets.