It’s flea season on Martha’s Vineyard, and it may be a bad one

Michelle Jasny uses a fine-toothed flea comb to check her Lab, Flower, for fleas and flea dirt. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

A flea pestilence is upon our Island where the Cult of the Dog is worshiped. In fact, this is the second year of above-average infestation of the little critters, owners and vets say.

Turns out that fleas come in cycles, like most things in nature, and their cycle of abundance is high, thanks to recent hot, humid weather conditions and the presence of pets in so many Island homes. The fleas’ breeding success is magnified, some pet owners say, by an Island strain of uber-flea, resistant to normal ministrations. And once you’ve got ’em in the house, eradication is a long process, requiring vigilance and persistence.

Mention fleas and a horror story generally follows. Here’s a true story of events in the household of Fred “Flea” Flicker (not his real name). Mr. Flicker recently renovated a home down-Island and moved three generations of family — and four dogs — into the pristine quarters last June. A multi-dog owner for decades, Mr. Flicker is a responsible pet owner. His dogs get regular vet checkups, monthly tick and flea treatments, and a well-balanced diet. Happy, healthy animals.

Flea Armageddon struck without warning a month ago. Fleas happily jumping from one dog to another, then to the floor and the carpet and furniture, generations multiplying overnight. Mr. Flicker was playing catch-up. “I bombed and bombed the house, applied flea treatments and flea baths to the dogs. Finally, last week, I called in the flea man,” he said.

In the process, Mr. Flicker has become a flea expert. “Well, I’m an expert at the problem, not so expert at the solution,” he said. Still, he’s in better shape than lots of pet owners who report they happily shut up their homes for two-week vacations this summer and walked back into their homes to a swarm of the mite-y rascals leaping onto their ankles.

Good news. Active flea life comes to a screeching halt with the onset of cold weather but it’s a temporary reprieve. Fleas plan ahead. They employ hibernation and a four-stage hatch strategy that allows them to reemerge with warm weather.

By the numbers, adult fleas only represent one percent of the flea population in an environment. Adults prefer a host for food but can live off detritus and can go without food for up to 50 days, according to‘s Health website. Adult fleas live on a host for up to three months.

Fleas begin as eggs (one-third of your total flea population) for about two weeks, then become larvae (about half the population) for up to a month or more, then enter the ever-treacherous pupa stage (10 percent of population). Cocooned pupa can be dormant for up to year on your pet, in furniture, carpet, etc. waiting for warm weather. Mr. Flicker knows that and vacuums obsessively to remove the nascent fleas whose cocoons can protect them from bombs and sprays.

Island vets confirm an uptick in fleas in the last two years and a pest control company reports calls have been intense over the past six weeks.

“The anecdotal evidence says fleas have been a little worse than in previous years. I actually saw it worse last year but the past two years have been worse than I’ve seen in many years. People are a little more proactive now. It is a lot easier to use prophylactic treatment before infestation than it is to eradicate it,” West Tisbury veterinarian Michelle Gerhard Jasny said last week.

“There is speculation — and it is speculation at this point — that fleas have built resistance to some of the treatment products in use. It’s difficult to pinpoint the causes (for increased flea population).

“Prevention rather than eradication is the best course of action. But [pet owners] should take particular care of the products they use. For example, there are products suitable for dogs that will kill cats that come in contact with the product. We’ve seen cases like that here, so pet owners should check with their vet and treat all the cycles [of flea breeding]. One simple application is not enough,” Dr. Jasny said.

Bridget Dunnigan of the Vineyard Veterinary Clinic in Edgartown is also seeing more flea problems and provided a prepared sheet of do’s and don’ts, delivered in a homespun style. “Think of your pet as a ‘salt shaker,’ sprinkling thousands of eggs everywhere it goes…There is no product that can kill the egg and pupa life stage without harming us. The only way to decrease the number of eggs and pupa in your house is to vacuum, vacuum, vacuum everywhere your pet goes…you need to vacuum and clean every third day,” she advises.

Dr. Dunnigan advises that vacuum bags should be discarded immediately and containers emptied outside the house.

Mobile vet David Tuminaro of Caring for Animals has thought about causes of the flea breakout. “Flea cycles vary by weather and the warmer the weather the faster fleas complete their [life] cycles. I’m no expert on global warming but it has been warmer and more humid in recent years.

“Fleas have been around for millennia. They may be developing resistance to treatment,” Dr. Tuminaro said, adding, “I’d say there’s been a 30 percent increase of flea-related calls this year, and over the past six weeks, maybe half the calls we get are about treating fleas,” he said.

“Everyone is frustrated. At the moment, the best approach is diligence, hit all four of the life cycles. Wash the bedding your pet sleeps on. Give your pet a mild bath twice a week. Use an oatmeal bath, for example, I don’t recommend flea baths. Use a flea comb and apply products such as Advantage and Frontline or Capstar, which is taken orally. Be diligent, even if you don’t see fleas” he said.

Griggs and Browne Termite and Pest Control, based in Buzzard’s Bay, rode to Mr. Flicker’s rescue. Mike Medeiros, quality control manager, confirmed this summer has been a flea party.

“Particularly over the last four to six weeks. High humidity. This has been a major flea season,” he said. Mr. Medeiros said he asks owners to “first treat the pets and vacuum, vacuum, vacuum. That gets the nesting fleas at the bottom of the rug to the surface where we can spray them,” he said.

Mr. Medeiros said the treatment requires pets and people to leave the house for four to six hours to allow sprayed areas to dry, assuring no ill effects on people or pets. Cost of treatment ranges upwards of a few hundred dollars, depending on home size, he said.

It’s the cool of the evening now at the (flea-less) Flicker house. “A lot of work but it was worth it,” Mr. Flicker said, adding, “the only downside is for the dogs, they’re not allowed on the couch anymore.”

Jack Shea of Vineyard Haven is a regular contributor to The Times.