May 6, 2019 | General
By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
The pesky pest season is here, and one of the most pervasive, frustrating insects on the planet is the flea. Here’s the Wikipedia description of these little blood-sucking parasites:
“Fleas are small flightless insects that form the order Siphonaptera. As external parasites of mammals and birds, they live by consuming the blood of their hosts. Adults are up to about 3 mm (0.12 in) long and usually brown. Bodies flattened sideways enable them to move through their host’s fur or feathers; strong claws prevent them from being dislodged.
They lack wings and have mouthparts adapted for piercing the skin and sucking blood and hind legs adapted for jumping. The latter enable them to leap a distance of some 50 times their body length, a feat second only to jumps made by froghoppers. Larvae are worm-like with no limbs; they have chewing mouthparts and feed on organic debris.”
If you live in an area where fleas are a problem for pets, I think you’ll find the following information eye-opening and helpful in keeping these pests out of your home and off furry family members.
Fleas have a four-stage life cycle:
Fleas reproduce at an incredible rate. Ten female fleas can produce over 250,000 more fleas in a single month. And believe it or not, the adult fleas riding around on your pet are only about 5 percent of the fleas in your living environment. That means 95 percent of the fleas in your house are everywhere but on your pet.
Flea eggs are most often found in carpets, bedding, floorboards and soil. Flea larvae and pupae are found where your dog or cat spends most of her time, including her bedding, in carpets and area rugs, on upholstered furniture, on your bedding and wherever else your pet hangs out.
Estimates are that for every adult flea on your pet, there are around 10 more wherever your pet spends time. That’s why you must eliminate not only the adults on your dog or cat, but the eggs, larva and pupa in your home, yard and your pet’s bedding.
Once a flea hops aboard your pet, it will spend its remaining life feeding off your furry family member, causing a persistent itch-scratch cycle, mild to significant discomfort and in some cases, more serious health problems.
It’s also important to note that intermittent flea exposure increases your pet’s risk for flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), which is an allergic (hypersensitive) reaction to the presence of fleas, and sometimes just a single flea can trigger FAD. Interestingly, it’s not the bite of a flea that makes your pet scratch; it’s the flea saliva, which can cause overwhelming irritation disproportionate to the actual number of fleas on them.
The classic symptom of flea bite hypersensitivity is frequent or constant severe itching and scratching, hair loss and skin sores. The hind end is more often the problem area, but lesions can occur anywhere on the body. Secondary bacterial infections are a risk for pets with open skin sores.
Things to look for if you suspect your pet is dealing with fleas:
Fleas flourish in temperatures between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit with humidity in the 75 to 85 percent range. In some locations flea season is year-round, but in others the types of fleas that bother pets and people aren’t considered a big problem. Fleas can transmit tapeworms, cause cat scratch disease and can even cause severe anemia, especially in young animals. However, they are primarily an annoyance, and if you live in flea-endemic area, it can seem like a constant battle to keep them under control.
The best way to prevent a flea infestation is to proactively check for fleas daily during flea season. Removing a few fleas is a whole lot easier than fighting hundreds, which can occur quickly if you’re not checking daily.
If you find a few fleas on your pet, don’t panic. Instead, grab a flea comb and start combing; it’s the best defense there is. Your dog or cat should be combed at least once daily with the flea comb. Place your pet on a light-colored towel to catch any fleas that fall off and dip the comb into a bowl of soapy water after each swipe (flush the contents down the toilet when you’re done).
Bathe your pet frequently until the fleas are gone, as fleas are less attracted to clean animals and drown like any other creature when submerged under water.
Vacuum all the areas of your home your pet has access to. Vacuum the carpet, area rugs, bare floors, upholstered furniture, pillows, your pet’s bedding and even your own if your pet sleeps with you. Use the crevice tool and other attachments to vacuum along the baseboards and around the corners and edges of furniture.
Don’t forget to vacuum hard-to-reach places like under furniture, beds and closet floors, and dump the contents of your vacuum into a sealed bag and leave it outside your house.
If it makes sense, designate a single sleeping area for your pet — one you can clean easily. Fleas accumulate in pet sleeping spaces, so if you can limit those, it will be easier to control the situation. Your dog’s or cat’s bedding should be vacuumed daily and washed frequently.
You can apply a light dusting of food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) on your carpets, bare floors and pet bedding. Make sure the DE is food-grade, not pool-filter grade, which is toxic if ingested. Like diatomaceous earth, cedar oil, another all-natural insect repellent, can be applied to your environment and pet bedding, as well as directly on your dog or cat.
If you’re battling a flea problem, it makes sense to use nontoxic flea deterrents whenever possible. Apple cider vinegar (ACV) is one option, and while it doesn’t kill fleas, it does repel them. You can make a solution out of equal parts ACV and water. I recommend using a raw, organic product. Add the mixture to a spray bottle and spritz it on your pet before he heads outdoors. You can also spray his bedding.
To “supercharge” the spray and make it even more distasteful to fleas, add in a few drops of dog-safe essential oils. Geranium, lemongrass, lavender, neem and catnip oil are good choices that will help deter fleas (as well as ticks, mosquitoes and other pests) from your pet.
You can also add ACV to your pet’s food. Use about 1 teaspoon per 20 pounds of dog. (Most dogs don’t like the taste of water with ACV, so I don’t recommend adding it because it could cause your pet to consume less water.) Another option is to pour diluted ACV over a freshly bathed dog. Add 1 cup of ACV to 1 gallon of water and pour it over your dog while he’s still wet. Massage the solution into his coat, don’t rinse, and towel him dry.
If you’re not a fan of apple cider vinegar, you can try citrus juice instead. Fleas dislike citrus, so sprinkle some fresh-squeezed lemon, orange or grapefruit juice on your pet’s coat, taking care to avoid their eyes (be aware, that lemon juice can lighten dark fur).
You can also add 1 cup of lemon juice to 1 gallon of water and pour it over your freshly bathed dog (avoiding the head), massage into the coat and towel dry. Then finish off with a light dusting of food-grade diatomaceous earth down your dog’s back, which provides extra protection during the worst weeks of flea season.
It’s extremely important to feed your dog or cat a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate, fresh food diet that will help keep her immune system functioning optimally. Fleas are not as attracted to healthy animals. Also provide pure drinking water and limit your pet’s exposure to unnecessary vaccines and medications, environmental chemicals (including lawn chemicals) and electromagnetic fields (EMFs).