Eeeeewwww, fleas!

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A dog scratches at a flea.

By: Dr. Fiona Caldwell
Idaho Veterinary Hospital
For Pets Best Insurance

Flea prevention products are widespread and effective, yet flea infestations are still a common veterinary complaint. Fleas are more than just a nuisance; they can be harmful to pet health and your family as well. If just thinking or reading about the creepy, crawly parasites make you itchy, then read on for important information about how to prevent fleas, and why prevention is so important for your family and your pet.

There are more than 1,900 species of fleas worldwide, luckily we really only need to be concerned about one of them, Ctenocephalides felis. This is the flea that infests our pets 99.9% of the time. For such a small creature, the flea can really cause big problems.

So, what kind of problems can fleas cause pets and people?
-A heavy flea burden can be lethal to a kitten or puppy, sucking so much blood that the animal can become fatally anemic and even die.
-Flea allergic dermatitis can occur in an animal that is only bitten once or twice by a flea, without a heavy flea load. The animal is actually allergic to the flea bites, causing intense itching and sometimes self mutilation.
-Tapeworm infection. While tapeworms are not in themselves lethal, they are unappealing and not healthy for the pet.
-Feline Infectious Anemia is a potentially life threatening disease caused by a blood parasite spread by fleas.
-The plague is still around in modern day medicine and is transmitted to dogs and cats by ingestion of infected rodents or small prey or by bites from infected fleas. The plague can be transmitted to humans in the same manner.
Cat Scratch fever or Bartonellosis is a potentially debilitating human disease. People contract this disease by cat bites and scratches from a cat that is infested with fleas carrying the bartonella bacteria.

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Some common flea myths
Myth: “My pet lives indoors, and therefore can’t have fleas….”
Fact: Fleas like to live indoors. If your pet goes outside to potty, they can easily bring fleas back into your home, where the fleas can thrive and reproduce.

Myth: “I would know if my pet had fleas because I would have bites too…”
Fact: Fleas don’t prefer human blood and won’t use it unless there is no other options or if the flea population is high.

Myth: “I would know if my pet had fleas, because I would see them…”
Fact: Animals can be very good at keeping themselves clean and can lick them away. You may never actually see the fleas and may only see the classic skin disease that accompanies a flea infestation.

Ok, I’m convinced, how can I prevent them?
It is important to be familiar with the flea lifecycle in order to break that cycle. There are four stages: the egg, larvae, pupae and the adult flea. Targeting more than one life stage will be a more effective way to eradicate fleas in your home.

Not all flea control products are created equal, and not all products work the same. For example, decades ago flea control consisted of flea collars, shampoos, powders and sprays which are generally effective at killing fleas, but don’t prevent fleas from reproducing. The newer generations of flea control products also sterilize the fleas, so they can’t reproduce. These newer products also have the ability to last for a month at a time and some have additional ingredients that can act as dewormers and ward off other parasites such as ticks and heartworms.

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Most products should be obtained by a licensed veterinarian, although some are available over the counter. There are a whole slew of products available and each work slightly differently. Some can be dangerous to puppies and kittens, some are toxic to cats, some are not safe in pregnant or nursing dogs. Your veterinarian can help you decide which flea control program is right for you and safe for your pet.

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