I grew up playing a game called The Flea Circus. If you are not familiar with this, it contains little metal “fleas” that you place in a 3-ring circus and make them do things like walk the tight wire, swing from a bar, and pop them high into the air using a large metal disk. It provided hours of entertainment for the whole family.
In real life, fleas are anything but a circus of fun.; and for dogs, they can be at best itchy and irritating, and at worst, a source of disease and infection.
To understand fleas, effectively treat an infestation, and prevent recurrence, we start with their life cycle.
Life Cycle of the Flea
Your sweet, unsuspecting dog goes outside as trained to eliminate. The adult fleas are lurking in the grass near your home, waiting for the dog to pass by so they can jump on. According to Flea Science, the adult flea has a horizontal jump distance of 8 inches (20 cm) and a vertical of 5.2 inches (13 cm), which is really remarkable for an insect that is only about 0.12 inches (3 mm) long!
Once on your dog, the flea takes a blood meal. As he returns inside, bringing his new companion along, the flea is likely already eating. Once the flea eats, she is ready to get down to business; reproductive business that is. She lays eggs shortly after eating, which drop easily off of your dog and into your carpet, couch, rug, or dog’s bed.
From this point, the eggs hatch into larvae, which then spin a cocoon and turn into pupae (all this happens within a month). This is where it gets tricky. Pupae can be ready to turn into adults in 3 days, or can stay in this stage for months.
Diseases from Fleas
The bad news is, fleas are hardy pests that are adapted to reproduce prolifically, laying 150 eggs during her lifetime, and producing adolescents that are adaptable. The worse news is that not only are they irritating, they carry diseases. The most common disease we see following flea bites is tapeworms. This is an intestinal parasite carried by fleas that infect the dog after a flea bite. They can cause weight loss and hair loss in severe cases, but most of the time, they are just a gross annoyance.
Less common diseases carried by fleas include cat-scratch disease, bubonic plague, and typhus. The last two are rare in developed countries, but cat-scratch disease does occur in dogs and humans, can be difficult to diagnose, and can cause non-specific symptoms that require antibiotic treatment.
By far, the most common effect of fleas on dogs is skin infection and severe itching, especially in flea allergic dogs. Dogs can be allergic to flea saliva, and even one bite in an affected dog can cause severe itching, a rash, and skin infection that needs medical treatment. If your dog has recurring skin issues, make sure that you discuss consistent flea prevention with your veterinarian to eliminate these parasites as a cause.
Treatment of an Infestation
The most effective treatment for an infestation in your home is a multi-faceted approach. First, all pets must be treated (including cats). Talk with your veterinarian about recommendations. There are multiple over-the-counter products, but prescription strength products may prove more effective in the face of an infestation.
Environmental cleanup is also important. Vacuuming floors and couches where pets sleep will remove many of the eggs, larvae and pupae from the home. The contents of the vacuum bag will need to be immediately taken out of the house. Laundering bedding and blankets will help kill larvae and pupae. Area sprays (available at pet stores, veterinary clinics and online) will help kill fleas in the house. Read all packaging and follow directions carefully prior to applying chemicals in your home and yard. In severe cases, professional pest control may need to be hired.
It is far easier to prevent fleas in the first place than to deal with an infestation in your home. Talk with your veterinarian about your dog’s lifestyle, prevention for cats in the home, your outside environment, and optimal flea control in your climate. In some areas, year-round flea control is needed. In colder climates, taking a break in very cold months may be fine. The best resource for this information is your veterinarian, as he or she sees many dogs daily and will know when fleas are at their worst.
Consistency is the key for prevention of the flea circus on your dog and in your house. And due to their variable and potentially prolonged life cycle, treating the environment during an infestation for months, along with year-round prevention, may be the best offense against these pesky parasites.