Solving the Mystery of Fleas and Flea Control

Does your dog or cat scratch constantly? Does your dog lose his hair every summer? Is your cat covered by bumps and scabs? Do you notice small insect bites on your ankles or legs? Does your pet get tapeworms every summer? If you answered yes to any of the above questions – you may be dealing with FLEAS. Cats and dogs with fleas are uncomfortable not only from constant scratching, but from skin infections and allergic reactions to fleas. Add to that the discomfort humans may experience from fleabites, and we realize how important it is to treat flea problems. With all the new products on the market to fight fleas, trying to decide which is the right product for the situation has become quite difficult. To begin to understand how the different flea products work, it is necessary to have a brief understanding of the flea and its life cycle.

When a flea jumps on a cat or dog it stays there for the remaining three to five weeks of its lifespan. After taking a blood meal from the host, the flea lays 25-50 eggs each day. These eggs fall off into the areas the dog or cat spends most of its time. The flea eggs hatch into a small worm called a larva. The larva lives in upholstery and bedding until it spins a cocoon, where it stays until it hatches out as an adult flea and begins looking for a host. These newly hatched fleas are the ones that often bite our ankles and legs. The adult fleas make up only about 5% of the total flea population, with the majority being eggs and immature forms.

To combat fleas, all stages of the life cycle must be addressed. Several relatively new products have simplified flea control by breaking the life cycle and preventing the multiplication of fleas in the household.

Program is the trade name of the product manufactured by Novartis. This product comes as a pill for cats or dogs, or a six-month injection for cats. When given monthly with a full meal (or every six months as an injection), Program prevents any flea that bites the pet from laying eggs that will hatch out. It does not affect the adult flea at all; so another product may be needed periodically to kill any adult fleas. This is a great product especially for dogs that may swim or be bathed frequently in the summer. Program also is available in combination with monthly heartworm preventative in the form of a product called Sentinel.

Frontline Topspot is a product from the Merial Company. It contains a new generation pesticide to which fleas and ticks have not developed resistance (unlike similar over the counter flea remedies, which contain pyrethrins or permethrins, which are no longer very effective against most external parasites) It is applied to the skin of the dog or cat in the form of a topical solution between the shoulder blades. Frontline actually binds to the hair and gets in the hair follicle so that a single application lasts for 4-8 weeks. As long as the animal is not bathed within three days (before or after) of application, non-medicated baths will not alter the effectiveness. It will also kill ticks before they have a chance to pass life-threatening diseases to your pet.

A brand new product from Novartis, called Capstar, has become available this spring. It is a tablet that will kill 100% of the fleas on your pet within 4-6 hours. For a severely infested animal, this can provide instantaneous relief from the itching. It does not, however, leave any residue to kill the fleas that will subsequently get on your pet from the environment. Therefore, it must be used in combination with one of the previously mentioned products, as well as with good environmental flea control.

Most flea products work best when used before a flea infestation is present. When a flea problem already exists the environment should be treated first. This may be done by a professional exterminator, flea bombs, or flea environmental sprays. With flea bombs, the house must be empty of animals and people for about 3 hours. Environmental sprays can usually be done without leaving the house. Look for sprays containing an insect growth regulator (IGR) such as Nylar. In addition all household pets should be bathed with a quality flea shampoo containing pyrethrin or permethrin. A regular flea program can then be started. Be sure to re-treat the environment in about 2 weeks since the cocoon stage of the flea is protected from insecticides.

Compliments of Dr. Terri Levinstein, Gunston Animal Hospital, Lorton, 703-339-7725

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