Fight those fleas

It's summertime, and the animals are scratching holes in themselves. The fleas are back with a vengeance, and nothing you do seems to help.

You're bathing and dipping your pet, you're applying topical treatments at great expense, and still you have a problem. Where are you going wrong?

Understanding the life cycle of the flea
The secret lies in understanding the life cycle of the flea. To be able to lay eggs, the flea has to have a blood meal. Over its life span of several weeks, it lays a few thousand eggs, which are covered with a sticky substance which help them to cling to pets and household fibres.

Then they develop into larvae, which wriggle into dark, dusty areas of the house and garden, away from direct sunlight.

Eventually they pupate, growing a nice protective covering, in which they safely sit, awaiting optimal conditions for hatching, when the emerging adult flea begins its search for that blood meal to start the cycle once more.

Pretty bog-standard insect behaviour you may say, and how is this information any help at all?

So what's the real problem?
You have to realise that the adult flea which you think is the problem, represents only about 5% of the problem. A further 10% is in pupae form, 35% in larvae form, and a whopping 50% is sitting on Fido's favourite chair and the floor in egg form.

Treating that 5% is going to alleviate your pets' scratching, and reduce the possibility of rickettsia infection, and tapeworm infestation, but is hardly even touching the problem.

Furthermore, while in egg or pupae form, they are indestructible to anything, but fire. Think about it – London's plague only came to an end with the Great Fire, which killed the rats carrying the fleas carrying the plague, plus all of those flea eggs, larvae and pupae. Make sense?

So you have to stimulate the unseen enemy into developing into a form that can be killed. Stimulants include vibration (ask anyone having renovations done to their house!), heat and humidity, and extra carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere. Strategies may include the option of having a bunch of (good!) friends round for a party, or alternatively:

  • Put your stereo speakers face-down on the floor, crank up the bass and treble, and play some loud music for a couple of hours.
  • Vacuum thoroughly after putting a flea collar into the vacuum-bag, paying special attention to the dark areas around places where the animals like to spend their time.
  • Clean the pets' bedding, and put it into direct sunlight for a few hours.
  • Use a good flea-specific spray (general insect foggers or aerosols won't do it), and spray all those areas where the animals spend their time, again concentrating on dark and dusty places – underneath the furniture, underneath sofa cushions and so on.
  • Repeat the process as and when necessary.

Make sure that the spray you use has a long residual action – you want the critters that hatch in four weeks' time to die as well. If safety is a concern with children in the house, ask your vet's advice - plenty of products are available which only affect cold-blooded creatures. Go to the nursery or hardware store and find out what you can use in the garden, as sandy gardens are often infested with fleas.

Continue with your adulticide applications to your pet, as you don't want them bringing home hitchhiker fleas! Try to use non-systemic products available from you vet. Cheaper supermarket brands often contain organo-phosphates which may damage your pets' liver or kidneys over the long term.

Never use anything on cats that is not specifically labelled as safe for them – they are highly susceptible to poisoning. Enquire about products containing Insect Growth Inhibitors, these prevent any eggs that are laid from ever hatching.

With these tips in mind, your summer should be a whole lot more relaxed for the entire family, and will probably save you some money for those other expenses that this time of year tends to engender.

- (Clair Sawyer, Health24, November 2006)

- Last updated: June 2010

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