by Augie Bering
The common flea is a pernicious little beastie that loves to feed on our pets. When you discover that your dog or cat has fleas, the first instinct is to try to kill the fleas on your pet’s body. This is actually only half the battle. If the larger infestation is not treated in and around the house, no amount of flea collars or dips is going to help solve your problem.
Ctenocephalides felis has a complex life cycle that helps them avoid simple treatment. Fleas hatch from eggs and then go through a series of different life stages while crawling around in your carpet or under the lawn. Since fleas lay so many eggs that are then dispersed wherever your pet roams, this is the hardest part of the flea population to eliminate.
Adult fleas spend their entire life on the animal’s body and are easier to target than their immature offspring. Fortunately, adult fleas are dramatically affected by modern insecticides and can be eliminated with many mass market products. These insect growth regulators (IGRs) either kill the fleas or prevent them from producing healthy eggs, breaking the life cycle.
IGRs are the products such as Advantage and Frontline that are applied to the skin on the animal’s neck or back every month or so. These insecticides are now available in both prescription and over-counter variations, but you should always consult with a veterinarian before using a new medication on your pet. Sadly, natural or homemade remedies are not generally effective enough to be a viable alternative to chemical poisons. Shampoos and flea dips do attack adult fleas, but the insect’s life cycle is fast enough that any relief is temporary. Flea collars help to prevent an infestation from developing, but fleas are hardy enough to survive in a household where all the pets wear collars.
The less well known half of the war on fleas takes place in the physical space where your pet spends most of its time. All bedding and other textiles the cat or dog frequently lays on must be washed in hot water. This will need to be repeated every week or so until you are pest free, usually a couple of months. Carpeted areas will need to be vacuumed repeatedly. A normal household vacuum cleaner is probably the best weapon in your arsenal. Not only are immature fleas sucked up before they can grow to adulthood, but their primary source of nutrition as also eliminated. Young fleas subsist on random organic material but prefer “flea dirt,” the reddish-black refuse produced after an adult flea takes a blood meal from your pet. Removing this makes a young flea’s life very tenuous. Vacuum cleaners also encourage flea eggs to hatch with their vibrations and noise, exposing them to later removal. It is critical that the vacuum be immediately emptied far away from your pets and household. There are now pesticides on the market designed to be sucked into your vacuum cleaner’s bag to kill the fleas you have sucked up, such as Flea Vac pellets.
If you have an indoor/outdoor kind of pet, the areas outdoors that your pet enjoys must also be dealt with properly. To rid your yard of fleas, take a trip to the garden center instead of a pet store. The simplest method is a hose-end sprayer full of a pyrethrin-based insecticide. Pyrethrins are chemicals derived from Chrysanthemum plants that are used in many, many consumer pesticides. Many yard treatments marketed for killing mosquitoes use this insecticide and are ideal for attacking fleas outdoors. Thoroughly wet down the areas of the yard your pet hangs out in and let dry completely before allowing your pet access. Outdoors, fleas also have to fight natural predators, but the continued presence of an easy meal does require you to put your thumb on the scale a bit with a pesticide treatment.
Both IGRs and pyrethrin-based poisons (once set) are thought to be quite safe for pets and humans, but please read the precautions on any product before you use it. If you spend the majority of your effort cleaning and treating the areas you pet frequents, and if you stick to a schedule to catch the new generations of fleas as they develop, you should be able to return to living in a flea-free environment.
August Bering V, “Augie” to his friends, is President of Bering’s Hardware in Houston, TX. Bering’s is well known for a broad range of carefully selected home goods such as outdoor living products to pet products, and red carpet service that has delighted customers for generations since 1940. Augie enjoys spending time with his family and friends, grilling and cooking, playing hard outside, traveling, design, art, live music, and spending as much time as he can with his family.