Fleas: Getting the jump on an itchy issue
Fleas are an itchy, annoying nuisance for many pet owners. They’re a very common parasite whose bites can trigger inflammation and itching – it’s enough to drive anyone hopping mad!
As the weather warms up, we see lots of clients who come to us for advice on how to deal on these pesky little hitchhikers. There’s a huge range of products marketed at flea control and trying to decide between them can be very confusing. However, there’s a lot more to flea control than meets the eye. Did you know that fleas actually spend a large portion of their lifecycle away from their warm-blooded hosts? Or that they’re not particularly fussy about which pet species they parasitise? Actively treating your pets with anti-flea products is only half the battle, as they have an annoying habit of setting up shop in the environment and consistently re-infecting pets over long periods of time.
So what’s the best way to deal with fleas? Let’s start by discussing their lifecycle, as it can provide a lot of clues as to how to manage fleas both on and off your pets.
The lifecycle of fleas
The length of the flea’s lifecycle is influenced by a number of factors – temperature and humidity are among the most significant, as well as the presence of live hosts in their vicinity. A single flea can complete its lifecycle in as few as three weeks to as long as year depending on the environment.
There are four main stages in the flea’s lifecycle. These are (in order): egg, larva, pupa, adult. Adult fleas lead a comfortable lifestyle, preferring to live on a warm-blooded host where they have ready access to all the food they need to reproduce! An adult female produces between 5-20 eggs per day, which can amount to 400-500 during her lifetime. The eggs fall off the host animal and get lost in carpets, on floorboards, bedding etc. The speed of their development is highly dependent on environmental factors and can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
Flea eggs hatch into larvae. The larvae have interesting dietary preferences – they happily eat the faeces of adult fleas (which is mostly made up of dried blood – gross!), but will also chew through organic debris found in their environment. They tend to move towards dark places in the house, like under furniture and into nice cool corners and cracks in the wall. Again, depending on environmental factors, larvae can take between 1-3 weeks to progress through three individual developmental stages before entering a cocoon, which facilitates their development into the adult flea. This final stage is called a pupa, and the cocoon can act like a time capsule – adult fleas can emerge in as few as 7 days, or remain in there for up to a year. Again, environmental factors play a huge role in this.
Adult fleas prefer to emerge into conditions that are optimal for their survival and reproduction – i.e., when it’s nice and warm, and when there’s a live host around! Did you know that the pupae can sense vibrations, warmth and even carbon dioxide produced by a live host moving past their resting place? This triggers the adult flea to emerge from its cocoon and the whole cycle to begin again.
So what to do? Controlling both the on- and off-host parts of the flea’s lifecycle are very important in exerting good flea control, especially when the timing of adult flea emergence is so unpredictable. A lot of things can go wrong with a flea control program, so here are some helpful hints to stop these pests from driving you and your pets mad.
And remember – just because you can’t see any fleas on your pet doesn’t mean that they’re not there!
TOP TIP #1: Decide on a flea product to use, and use it consistently and correctly!
There are a lot of products out there, but no need to panic! All you need do is ask yourself the following questions:
(1) Which parasites are covered by the product?
Different products will be active against different stages of the flea’s lifecycle – this may or may not be stated on the packaging. Some products will also cover against other types of parasite, such as ticks, mites, intestinal worms, heartworm etc. At Mt. Eliza Village Vet we have the following products available for the control of fleas:
NexGard Spectra: covers fleas, ticks, mites, most types of intestinal worms (excluding tapeworm) and heartworm. Chewable tablet. Administered monthly
Advocate: covers fleas, mites, lice, most types of intestinal worms (excluding tapeworm) and heartworm. Spot-on treatment. Administered monthly
Advantage: covers fleas and lice. Spot-on treatment. Administered monthly
Bravecto: covers fleas, ticks and mites. Chewable tablet. Administered every three months
If you have not used a product that incorporates heartworm protection in your pet before, we recommend you check in with us first.
(2) How frequently does the product need to be applied?
The product typically states on the packaging how often it needs to be applied, and in some cases how rapidly it will start to work. The vast majority of flea products need to be applied on a monthly basis.
(3) How is the product administered?
Most products are available either as a spot-on treatment delivered to the back of the neck (e.g. Advocate, Advantage) or given as a chewable tablet (e.g. Nexgard Spectra, Bravecto). We usually recommend choosing a product based on what you’d prefer to administer – for example, if your dog hates tablets, then a spot-on will be much easier to use! If using a spot-on treatment, be aware that you should avoid bathing your pet for 48 hours either side of application. This will ensure that the fleas are exposed to the largest amount of the product’s active ingredient possible.
(4) Is the product safe for use on/in my pet?
It is VERY important that you check which species the product can be used for! Some flea treatments that are safe for use in dogs are toxic to cats.
Remember, if in doubt – check the packaging! You can always ring your local pet store or us for more information, and help deciding on the best flea protocol for your pet. Once you’ve decided on a product, administer it as directed. The product is only as effective as it is used correctly.
TOP TIP #2: Control the environmental flea burden
Did you know that, at any one time, only about 5% of the flea population is made up of adults living on your pet? That means that the remaining 95% - the eggs, larvae and pupae – are out in the environment!
Environmental flea control is just as, if not more, important than regularly applying anti-flea products to your pet. Luckily, there are several easy things you can do to get rid of these immature fleas and significantly reduce your environmental burden.
(1) Regularly clean your pet’s bedding and hang it out in the sun to dry. Make sure you regularly clean all beds and the bedding of favourite resting places in the house! Aim to do this at least once per week.
(2) Thoroughly vacuum the house – make sure to get under furniture and in the corners! Pay particular attention to dark corners and carpeted areas.
(3) Where possible, limit access to outdoor/wild sources of fleas (e.g. stray cats, foxes, possums etc.). This can be more difficult to achieve, but as long as you’re on top of applying your flea control product, it will help reduce the number of fleas carried indoors by your pet.
TOP TIP #3: Treat all pets in the house at the same time
Fleas aren’t fussy – they’ll happily take a blood meal from a dog, or a cat, or a person! This means that it’s not uncommon for multiple pets to be carrying fleas at once. Get around this by treating ALL pets in the house AT THE SAME TIME, and making sure that everyone’s bedding is kept clean and dry. This is especially important during the summer months when fleas are most active.
TOP TIP #4: Seek veterinary care if your pet seems extra itchy!
Some pets are more sensitive to flea saliva than others. These pets can develop something called “flea hypersensitivity dermatitis” – a bad skin rash that results from an allergic reaction to proteins and other molecules in flea saliva. This most commonly arises around the base of the tail, on the belly and around the ears (i.e. places fleas like to congregate and hide).
However, it’s important to know that there are lots of other causes of itchiness in dogs, such as skin infections and allergies. Ruling out fleas is an important part of diagnosing the cause of itch in dogs, so if you’re on top of your flea control and your pet still seems uncomfortable, bring them in for a visit. Dr. Libby has provided a great overview of itchiness in dogs in her previous blog posts, which are available on our website.
Take home message
Fleas are a frustrating issue for many people and their pets. However, they can be managed more efficiently by combining good, consistent on-pet treatment strategies (whether spot-on or chewable) and reducing the number of immature fleas in the environment. Consistency is key! Keep at it and hopefully your pet will soon