As the weather warms and you head outside to have some fun with your dog, that extra scratching and fur biting brings a timely reminder: It’s flea season.
When these tiny insects hitch a ride on the hides of our dogs and cats, they can make their lives itchy and miserable. A single flea can bite your dog or cat hundreds of times in a day, so of course, you’ll want to stay a step ahead of these pests.
By the way, if you ever moved cross-country, you may have noticed that fleas are abundant in some regions, but seemingly nonexistent in others. Dry, arid weather inhibits the development and maturation of fleas, so pet parents in, say, Arizona and Colorado may find these pests are less bothersome to their pets (but not absent). But fleas proliferate in the heat and humidity, which is why they are so abundant in the summer.
Do flea bites hurt your pet?
When fleas are pestering your dog and cat, humans may barely notice. Fleas can and do bite humans, leaving small, itchy welts on the skin, especially around the ankles and legs. Other than that, you may see them appear as small, dark specks on light surfaces that quickly disappear. They mostly take up residence in dogs and cats because their fur and hair coat offer a protective, welcoming environment to take shelter.
Flea bites do more than torment your pet. When left untreated, they can lead to more serious health conditions, especially if your pet has underlying issues.
- Some dogs and cats are allergic to flea bites, which amplifies the discomfort to your pet. The telltale signs of flea allergy dermatitis are raised bumps along the neck, and of course, you can expect them to bite and scratch at themselves excessively.
- There’s the unsettling fact that fleas can transmit tapeworm eggs to your dog or cat. If your pet is grooming and ingests a flea that’s carrying tapeworm eggs, that can eventually lead to an infection in the intestinal tract.
- Then there’s flea-bite anemia, which can occur in an elderly or sick animal, along with kittens and puppies. As their system struggles to manufacture enough red blood cells to keep up with the blood loss from flea bites, the pet can become lethargic; this can even be fatal.
Which flea treatments work best?
Now that it’s clear that teeny tiny fleas can be big trouble to your pet, you’ll want to keep them from bothering your cat or dog in the first place.
Here’s a roundup of options to dissuade fleas from using your pet as their personal habitat and food source. As a bonus, many of these treatments also target ticks, so you can shield your pet against infectious diseases like Lyme and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
These contain ingredients that repel and kill fleas. While they do offer quick relief to your pet, most pet parents find they can’t rely on the shampooing alone for flea prevention.
[Click here to learn how to wash your dog like a groomer and other healthy coat tips.]
Flea collars offer a convenient option for pet parents. These slowly release a pesticide that your pet’s skin absorbs, killing or repelling fleas (or both). Here are a few more things to know about flea collars:
- Pets with sensitive skin sometimes get irritated by the pesticide, so keep an eye on your dog or cat for signs of discomfort.
- Some are wary of using flea collars, especially when children are interacting with the pet. You wouldn’t want them to get the pesticide on their hands and end up ingesting it. Before you buy any brand, do your homework on the active ingredients used in flea collars, so you can make a choice that would be safest for your pets and your family.
Available both over the counter and by prescription, the individually packaged treatments should be rubbed into the dog or cat’s skin. Once the medicine is absorbed by the oil glands, it spreads and kills the fleas that are on your pet’s body, offering protection for up to 30 days. To keep your pet from licking it off, apply it only to hard-to-reach areas, between the shoulders and along the back. Read the packaging to make sure you get the treatment that’s right for your dog’s size and weight.
Oral flea medications
These medications are available only through a prescription from a vet. Some are formulated with an insecticide that kills the flea when it bites your pet. Others have a hormone regulator that blocks the growth of the larvae, in the event that a flea deposited eggs on your pet. Some medications contain both. Once your pet ingests the medication, it starts working in about 30 minutes.
For those who prefer to steer clear of chemicals and pesticides, there are plenty of natural remedies that pet parents swear by, both on the market as well as homemade. Many contain herbal ingredients and oils that repel fleas. Check with your local independent pet retailer — they’ll have some effective pet-tested options to share with you.
Tips for safe usage of flea treatments
To make sure you steer clear of flea control products and remedies that won’t harm or irritate your pet, seek guidance from a trusted source, such as your pet’s health care provider. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Flea control products are not one-size-fits-all and should not be used interchangeably between cats and dogs. For example, some dog remedies contain the active ingredient permethrim, which can be lethal to cats when ingested.
- Most flea treatments are not suitable for puppies and kittens, so talk to the pet’s health care professional for guidance.
- Equally important is correct dosage, so always read the packaging to make sure the product is right for your pet’s size.
- Before you try that homemade natural remedy that uses essential oils, check to make sure it’s pet safe. Some oils irritate the skin and nose, while others can even be toxic if ingested, according to the ASPCA Animal Control Poison Control Center.
Evict fleas (and their eggs, and their larvae) from your house
As soon as you detect the presence of fleas on your pet, don’t stop with the flea treatments. It’s time to be proactive and take steps immediately. One female can lay up to 2,000 eggs in her lifetime. Given the flea’s brief life-cycle, which can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months (depending on the conditions), your home can quickly be the scene of a major infestation.
To keep your pet healthy and comfortable (along with the human members of your family), you’ll keep fleas out of the indoor environment.
Keep kitty indoors
Fleas and ticks have better access to cats when they spend time outdoors. Indoor cats can still get fleas, but they’re less likely to transport them into your home than cats that are allowed outside.
[Indoors or out? Here are more reasons to keep your cat indoors.]
Vacuum your house
Once the hot and humid weather hits, daily vacuuming can catch many adult fleas and larvae that have made their way into the house. Along with carpeted surfaces, make sure you’re also vacuuming hard flooring. (Should you place a flea collar in your vacuum for good measure? According to cleaning experts, it probably won’t do much good, but doing so won’t do any harm, either. Just be sure to empty your vacuum frequently.)
Wash your pet’s bedding
When your pet shows signs of fleas, wash your pet’s bedding in hot soapy water, followed up by once-a-week washings just to be sure you’ve evicted everything.
Treat your house
Home sprays featuring natural ingredients or insecticides are two things you can try to kill fleas and ticks on contact. If you’re vacuuming, spraying and giving flea baths, but are still having trouble staying a step ahead of the flea circus, it may be time to call a professional exterminator.
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