Fleas in the wintertime? You bet.
By: Dr. Jane Matheys
The Cat Doctor Veterinary Hospital
For Pets Best Insurance
I live in a dry Western state, and when I moved here a year ago, my colleagues told me that fleas are not much of a problem in our area because of the low humidity. Imagine my surprise, then, with the cases of heavy flea infestations that I’ve seen over the past month. Given the right conditions, fleas can be plentiful! Since some pet insurance companies will even help to cover a potion of flea prevention with their wellness plans, it’s a good idea to inquire.
Fleas are not just a summer issue, like you might think. While fleas won’t survive a good frost outside, they can be a year-round problem inside your home. The most common flea in the US which feeds off both cats and dogs is called Ctenocephalides felis, or the cat flea. The primary determining factor of populations is humidity, so fleas can be worse from one area to another and can vary seasonally from year to year. We had a wet spring this year, so that probably accounts for the more numerous infestations that I’ve been seeing.
While many pets live with fleas and show minimal signs of infestation, some develop a pet health allergy to flea saliva which causes them to scratch excessively or develop other skin disease. The painful itching can be so bad that the poor animal may scratch herself raw in seeking relief. The cat flea can carry the larval stage of the tapeworm Dipylidium caninum. Pets can then be infested with these worms by eating fleas during grooming. Fleas have the potential to transmit other infectious agents causing diseases such as Haemobartonellosis which is a serious form of anemia. Adult fleas feed on animal blood. In young kittens and puppies this can cause weakness, anemia and death. Cat fleas can also cause itchy bites on sensitive humans, typically around the ankles.
While you may see actual fleas on your pet, the most common sign is flea dirt, which is actually flea feces. It is black pepper-like granules in the coat, especially on the rump and groin area. It is found by either parting the fur or using a special “flea comb” with narrow spaced teeth. To determine if what you find is flea dirt, which has digested blood in it, place the granules on a moistened white paper towel. Rub them gently; if the paper towel turns red-brown, your pett has flea dirt.
Within 2 days of finding a home on your pet, the mature female flea starts to lay eggs at a rate of about 50 a day. The eggs fall off the cat’s coat together with flea dirt. This flea dirt provides food for the hatching flea larvae. Eggs and larvae can be found anywhere your cat or dog has been, but are particularly concentrated in bedding or in areas where your pet spends a lot of time. The larvae dislike light and move deep into the carpet or soft furnishings. The larvae develop into pupae, each encased in a sticky cocoon. An adult flea develops within the cocoon and awaits a sign that there is an animal or person close by. It does this by detecting pressure, noise, heat, carbon dioxide or vibrations. The new flea can emerge and attach to the host within seconds. Fleas can lie waiting in the cocoon for up to 2 years. However, in the right conditions, the whole life cycle can be completed in 15 days. Because prevention is always best, it’s important to purchase a wellness plan from a pet health insurance company that will reimburse a portion for preventing fleas.
Once there is a flea infestation it is important to treat all the animals and the house. There is a vast and confusing array of flea treatments on the market, and it is important to follow your veterinarian’s advice for the best and safest results. Never use products labeled for dogs on cats, as they can be toxic. In particular, the insecticide permethrin can be safely used as a flea treatment for dogs, but is highly toxic to cats and may even cause death. Always consult your veterinarian first!
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The older generation of flea control products (flea powders, flea collars and dips) are now completely obsolete. The latest treatments are the topical “spot-ons” which are much safer for both pets and humans. These are applied to the skin, usually at the back of the neck, and disperse through the skin’s oils. Most topicals are labeled for once-a-month application. I like Advantage, Frontline and Revolution. If a pet is heavily loaded with flea dirt, I recommend a cleansing bath first, followed by one of these topical products after the animal is dried completely.
Treatment of the house is also necessary. Vacuum your entire house paying particular attention to corners, dark crevices, under furniture, under beds, pet beds, rugs and especially around baseboards. Dispose of vacuum bags/contents to prevent collected immature flea stages from continuing to develop in the house. Wash all bedding thoroughly.
Treat your house to eradicate fleas at all stages of their development. Choose an insecticide that contains an Insect Growth Regulator (IGR). Spray all carpets, rugs, floors, soft furnishings and places your pet sleeps with an aerosol, flea bomb or fogger that kills flea eggs, larvae and emerging adult fleas. Make sure that you spray into every nook and cranny and pay special attention around baseboards and under rugs and furniture, including under beds. Aerosols are best for getting these hidden spots. Read and follow directions carefully when using insecticides.
While the fleas are in the pupae stage (in their cocoons) they are not affected by insecticides. The cocoons are watertight and protect the developing flea. This is why you may see a new flea infestation about 2 weeks later as new fleas emerge from these cocoons. If this happens you may need to treat your house again.
Continue to treat your pet monthly with one of the topical products for several months minimum to be sure the flea infestation is resolved. Periodically flea comb your pet to monitor the progress.
Once adult and immature fleas have been completely eradicated from the household, reassess whether further treatment is necessary. If your pett goes outside, consider using one of the topical products in a preventative manner.