How to Win the Flea Battle: Fighting Them on Your Pets and in Your Home; Understanding Their Life Cycle
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How to Win the Flea Battle: Fighting Them on Your Pets and in Your Home; Understanding Their Life Cycle

How to fight fleas in all their stages: understanding the flea lifecycle
It's flea season, and even the most vigilant pet owner might find their cat or dog scratching more than usual. Especially with uncommon heat waves, the little critters we refer to as fleas, can come out in droves. Fleas are more than just a nuisance, they are also a health hazard.

If your pet seems unusually grumpy, nervous or is scratching, it's a good idea to check for fleas even if you don't visibly notice any on your pet or in your home. The easiest way to do this is by using a flea comb and combing your pet and checking any pet bedding. If you see black fine schmutz or actual fleas, your pet has fleas. The black specs are flea debris left behind on your pet or your pet's bedding. For every one flea on your pet, there are 95% more in your house, your linens, your carpet, other parts of your pet, your couch, and your pet's bedding.

Fleas can cause many health hazards.  One of these is dermatitis ;this is when your pet scratches so much they lose fur, leaving balding patches and "hot spots" as well as bumps and scabs. These can easily become infected with a bacterial infection. Some pets are allergic to flea bites, and have even more dramatic skin issues.  Your pet can also become anemic from flea bites, causing lethargy and weakness. From chewing and ingesting fleas and their larvae, your pet can become infected with parasites such as tapeworms. Your pet also becomes susceptible to rickettsiosis which includes typhus and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. These are caused by bacteria and are transferable to humans. 

Okay, so now you have established that you have fleas in your home, what do you do to get rid of them? You have scoured the internet for solutions and found everyone saying different things, each claiming to be the best solution. Perhaps you want to use natural or pet-safe solutions or perhaps you simply want to eradicate the problem with the big guns straight away by flea bombing. One thing is for sure, none of the solutions for taking care of fleas is easy. It requires some ongoing care on your part. Here's the reason why:

A flea’s life cycle has several stages: egg, larva or caterpillar, pupa or cocoon, and adult. The length of time it takes to complete this cycle depends on the environment which includes temperature, humidity, and the availability of a nourishing host (that means you, your pet or anything else warm-blooded, handy) but on average takes about two weeks. In that two weeks of living on your pet, the female flea enjoys life--sucking blood two to three times per day and laying twenty to thirty eggs each day. If you do that math, that means she could lay several hundred eggs over her life span.  That is just one female flea. The eggs then fall off of your pet into the yard, bedding, carpet, and wherever else the animal spends time. If your animal is indoor/outdoor, you need to treat inside the house as well as outside. 

The flea eggs develop where they have landed and due to their small size, that includes small cracks in the floor and between crevices in carpeting. The egg hatch into larvae. These tiny worm-like larvae live among the carpet fibers, in cracks of the floor, and outside in your yard. They feed on organic matter, skin scales, and even the blood-rich adult flea feces (remember the black specs you found when checking for fleas on your pet?). The larvae grow and eventually form a very resilient cocoon that waits for the right conditions to hatch into an adult. This includes heat, vibrations and exhaled carbon dioxide giving them a signal that a host is nearby. When all conditions are right for these little beasties, tens of thousands of these can invade your home.

Start with your pet. I suggest Frontline Plus. I have tried other brands, but Frontline seems to work the fastest and most thoroughly. One month before using Frontline, I used Advantage Plus on two of my pets and saw no difference whatsoever. (Hey, they were giving out a free trial coupon through my vet). Frontline rocks. This spot-on flea product kills almost all fleas in all flea stages for up to 30 days. You see a remarkable difference in just 24 to 48 hours. If you believe your pet has a small amount of fleas, but are worried about ticks and possibly parasites such as worms, try the new Revolution. It's great for fleas, but slower acting. However, it also takes care of ticks and parasites including tapeworm and heart worm. (Note: If you have a dog, you will have to have them tested for heart worm prior to using a product like Revolution). I have used this to great benefit on my kitten when I first adopted him. (He is now an adult.)

Minimize the clutter in your house. Fleas love hiding in bunched up sheets, clothes on the floor, boxes, papers, etc.  Take a large dog collar and cut four one inch long pieces and put it into your vacuum canister if you have a bagless, or bag if you have a bagged vacuum. This will kill the fleas as you vacuum them up. Make sure to vacuum everywhere with a really, REALLY good vacuum. When I say everywhere, I mean get out that crevice tool and do the edges of the floor and carpet by the walls, move furniture to vacuum underneath, get those places behind the TV with the extender tool if it's too heavy to move. I just switched my vacuum (which was working - a Dirt Devil Breeze - review to come) and realized how much of a difference the new vacuum made (a cyclonic Bissell - Holy cow! Did the Dirt Devil really leave that much behind???). 

You can put lime (the mineral) in your yard to treat your yard against both fleas and ants. Diatomaceous earth, found at your local garden store, also works in your yard against fleas. You can spray small micro-organisms found in your garden store called nematodes into your yard and under your plants and dank places, since they eat and live off of flea larvae. You can put a few drops of peppermint oil in a spray can with water and spray each room after vacuuming. Please be sure it is only a few drops, like 5 per half gallon, as cats have very thin skin and can absorb oil essences easily. Fleas and ants hate peppermint, and properly diluted it isn't harmful to your pets. Borax, the laundry cleaner, will kill fleas by dehydrating them. You can use this in your home in cracks and crevices, and vacuum it up after a time.

Apparently, using dehumidifiers with air conditioning makes a huge difference. Flea eggs needs 70-75% humidity to hatch and larvae need at least 50% humidity to survive. I am not sure how accurate this assessment is, since I live in Oregon and yes, we have our share of flea problems, but humidity rarely is higher than 50%. However, when fighting the fight against fleas, every little piece in your arsenal helps. In humid areas, so general knowledge goes, 20% of eggs survive into adulthood, but in arid areas, less than 5% do. Fleas thrive between 70 to 90 degrees.

Other than treating your pet with Frontline, the number one thing you can do to help contain the infestation of fleas in your home is to vacuum thoroughly and often. A study from the University of California showed that a thorough vacuuming traps 96% of adult fleas. Couple that with the flea collar tip above, and you should be well on your way to a non-itchy blissful life with you and your pet.

Here are a few TIPS:

  • Don't be suckered in by supermarket brands of flea treatments, especially those stating they are "all natural" or "safe". If you read closely, they all have disclaimers that they are a danger to yourself and to your domestic pet. Just because it says "natural" doesn't mean it isn't lethal. Chrysanthemum, for example, is a common plant, often found in many homes at Christmas time. It is also one of natures most lethal toxins. The brands purchased in the grocery store do not need to go through as thorough testing as the brands that require a prescription, though Frontline Plus is now available without a prescription from select feed stores or pet stores, often much less expensively than through your vet.
  • If you purchase Frontline through your vet, you may get a coupon, so weigh the savings, including the exam you will need to pay for, carefully. I did receive free Advantage Multi for my cats by taking a new cat in to my vet, which I had to do anyway. However, the Advantage really did very little.
  • If you have a large number of animals, look up the dosing on the Frontline package for your pet. I currently have 3 adult cats, one dog and littler of 5 kittens that I am trying to place. The traditional cost for Frontline would be around $150 to take care of all of the animals with one months treatment. I purchased, from my local feed store, one three month supply for a large dog and put two applicators into a new glass vial and use a (non-needle) syringe to dose all the animals. There is a nominal difference in ingredients and this is what shelters do to make their dollar go further. My cost for one and a half months of treatment for 9 pets? $42. Just be sure to tightly seal the vial and put a piece of clean saran wrap over the lid before you screw it on. Also clean and mark all the syringe parts and put them into a ziploc bag and then put the entire left over amount in the glass vial in another ziploc and put it in your fridge away from food (like in your door). Never store it in the remaining applicator. It will evaporate and possibly leak.
  • Do not use a flea collar on your pet. It is irritating and potentially deadly to your pet.
  • If your vacuum has a turbo tool, make sure to give any cat posts or pet beds the once over thoroughly with this. You can also use this on your mattress! It is fabulous!
  • After you treat your animal with Frontline and your vacuum, be sure to clear out the vacuum canister or bag. The flea collar should kill all the fleas that go in there, but you don't want any errant ones running around, do you? I changed to a different vacuum where cleaning the canister did not require me to reach in and remove a gross filter to empty it.
  • A few days after you have treated your pet and home, use the flea comb again. Be sure to run it close to your pets skin and have a small bowl of soapy water next to you incase you find any fleas you can plop them in there. Fleas can escape simply being in water. The soap keeps them weighted down and makes it impossible for them to escape and they will drown.
  • I never dose my animals year round with spot-on Frontline or any other brand of flea treatment. It builds up in their systems and currently the FDA is doing research into their safety for long term use. I have found that if I start a month prior to flea season and end a month or two after flea season that I usually have a great result throughout the year.
  • Don't get discouraged. It won't happen overnight. Also, once you  see progress, don't get complacent. Keep up the vigilance, though you can relax some.

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Comments (13)

thanks for the thorough article. We purchased an anti-flea natural additive that we sprinkle on Ziggy's food (got it from our reputable natural health pet store). No fleas - so it's worth a try, if you can find it. Much less expensive than recommended flea medicine, but effectiveness probably depends on your area.

Ranked #4 in Pet Health

Hi Sy - When there's not too many fleas to worry about, garlic and brewer's yeast works well. You can get it in powder or tablets and crush the tablets for the cats (dogs can eat them whole) and mix it in with their food. There is another product that I really like that seems to work fairly well, but you have to use it sparingly and every two weeks. It's fairly expensive and called Flee Flea! It's a pump spray and one pump does the trick. It won't kill them, but it deters them (apparently). Thanks for your tips too! Is Ziggy a dog or a cat?

Ziggy is a dog (a Bedlington Terrier). I'll visit my pet food store today to get the name of the product we used last year, and I'll pass it on to you. Thanks for your additional suggestions. SY

Ranked #4 in Pet Health

Ah! A Bedlington! So he looks like a little lamb!

Yes, and he acts like one too (most of the time). (smiley face goes here)

Ranked #4 in Pet Health

My neighbor has one. Very sweet dogs. I have a Shiba Inu, if you know what those are.

No idea about Shiba inu. I'll google it.

Ranked #4 in Pet Health

They are similar to the Akita. Akitas are bred from the large wolf in Japan and Shibas are from the small wolf in Japan. They have a wonderful disposition if you like cats. The name literally means "Little Dog" (very creative, eh?) and they have a language all their own. She was a nightmare puppy, but I did a lot of research and soon learned her language. Now she is the most fabulous, wonderful, loving and amazing dog.

thanks for telling people NOT to use flea collars

Ranked #4 in Pet Health

Your welcome Brenda. Sorry it took so long to respond. I got locked out for a while. GO NRDC for flea collar awareness!

Janice Holladay

Thanks for again providing this important info. I wish more people would know about this and would do the necessary research to take care of their pets.

Ranked #4 in Pet Health

Please note: Since having this article fourteen months ago, I have found new information on harmful flea & tick products and safer alternatives. Please read my other factoidz on these products.

Thanks for all the help you give us so we can keep our loved ones safe.