The Best Ways to Fight Fleas
Sometimes they give you annoying itchy bites. Sometimes they wipe out entire civilizations. They're fleas -- and you and your pets have warm, cozy bodies that they can't wait to call home. After all, you're filled to the brim with an endless supply of the blood they crave from the moment they hatch. Tiny, voracious, hard-to-find and quick-to-multiply, fleas are among the worst the domestic insect world has to offer. But if you know what you're up against and how to handle it, humans and their pets can win the war against becoming living buffet tables, whether you choose natural pest control or other options.
About one-eighth of an inch long, fleas are small, flat and wingless. Three sets of powerful legs propel them to remarkable heights and speeds. Their ability to jump is legendary, and it's designed to launch them from the ground onto a suitable warm-blooded host. Once they find one they like, they live their entire lives there -- mating, laying eggs and, of course, taking the host's blood in exchange for itchy welts. They prefer hiding in the dense coats of furry animals, but when other hosts aren't available, humans will do.
The most immediately noticeable effects of flea bites are the annoying, itchy bumps caused by their saliva. But they're also credited with spreading the bubonic plague, which wiped out one-third of Western Europe in the 1300s. Bubonic plague is now incredibly uncommon, but tapeworms, cat scratch disease, murine typhus and parasitic bacterial infections are not -- and fleas can carry them all.
You, your dog or your cat can pick up fleas from just about anywhere outside and bring them inside. A single flea can lay 50 eggs a day and live on its host for nearly two months. Flea larvae fall from the host and burrow deep into fabrics, animal bedding, and carpets, where they can lie dormant for months until conditions are just right for hatching. When they emerge, they emerge in great numbers -- and hungry. There's rarely such a thing as a single flea -- small encroachments can quickly turn into massive infestations. If you see a flea, act quickly -- but first, know what you're up against.
More than 2,000 species of fleas grace the world with their presence, 300 of which make their homes in North America. For fur-bearing animals like cats and dogs, no other parasite is more common. Most fleas have a favorite host, but they're also opportunists that will make their home on, lay their eggs in and gobble up blood from any warm body in their vicinity. Here's a look at the six species you're most likely to encounter.
Officially called ctenocephalides felis, domestic cat fleas are the most common species found on both cats and dogs in North America. Their hosts of choice are dogs, humans and, as their name implies, cats. They carry the common tapeworm parasite.
Ctenocephalides canis, also known as dog fleas, also carry tapeworm. They prefer dogs, but will settle for cats, humans and range of other furry creatures. In the wild, they're often found on raccoons, skunks, livestock, and possums.
Xenopsylla cheopis prefer rat blood, but they're one of a handful of species that will gladly dine on dogs, cats, and people if their namesake host isn't available. They're especially dangerous creatures. Rat fleas are carriers of the bubonic plague.
Also known as the sticktight flea, the tropical hen flea's proper name is Echidnophaga gallinacea. These little bloodsuckers prefer poultry, but if a dog, cat, or other mammal is close by, that will taste enough like chicken to suit the sticktight's palate.
If rabbits are occasional visitors to your yard, chances are good they're covered in spilopsyllus cuniculi -- rabbit fleas, which like bunnies, but don't discriminate against cats and dogs. They like to feed especially on cat and dog ears, so if you see crust or papules on your pet's ears -- especially around the edges of the ears -- rabbit fleas are likely to blame.
We humans have our very own flea -- a pair of fleas, actually. The pulex irritans, or the human flea, and the pulex simulans, or false human fleas, love to dine on the world's apex predator -- but they'll settle for pigs, wild mammals, or your dog and cat.
Topical treatments, pills, and collars dominate the anti-flea market. All three options come with pros and cons, and there isn't one "best" solution for all situations. Topical treatments can be powders, shampoos or spot treatments. Pills can come in swallowable or chewable forms and collars can be used for prevention, treatment or both.
Topical -- or spot-on -- treatments are the most popular and probably the most universally effective. Applied between the shoulder blades at the base off the neck, the treatment then spreads across your pet's body. The treatments kill adult fleas, eggs, larvae, and other parasites. Sold under brand names like Advantage II and Frontline Plus, many repel new fleas while killing the existing insects. The drawbacks are that they can irritate the skin and cause itching, and the pet must dry completely before it can go outside or contact people or other pets.
Oral treatments involve far less work than topical treatments -- if you can get your dog to swallow or chew the pill, that is. Sold under brand names like Capstar and Comfortis, flea pills begin working in a few hours or even in a few minutes. Like any medication, however, they might upset your pet's stomach or cause other side effects. They sometimes require a prescription, and it's likely you'll have to use one pill for treatment and another for prevention.
Flea collars, which often double as tick collars, are the easiest of all to apply. Most are used as preventatives, but some both kill and repel. Flea collars, like those sold by Seresto, can last up to eight months. The collars' chemicals, however, can be transferred to kids and other pets by touch.
Far less common are flea "dips," which are highly concentrated topical treatments. You can buy them over the counter, but they're so powerful that they're best administered by veterinarians. Dips are short-term treatments for significant infestations. They're not to be used on animals that are very young, very old, pregnant, sick or otherwise vulnerable.
Flea shots, like Program 6 Month, are a newer treatment option. They're made to prevent new eggs from developing, although previously hatched fleas might continue to flourish even after the injection is administered. Program 6 Month injections are specifically for cats.
If fleas are on your pets, it's almost certain they're in your house. Fleas are tiny, resilient, and rapidly multiplying survivors. Ridding your home of them is no easy task -- but living with them is not an option. DIYers do have options, but if you have the means, professional extermination might be worth the extra cost.
Flea bombs or foggers are readily available at big-box stores, hardware stores, and online for around $5 to $20. They can be effective for fleas in all stages of development, but they require tedious and time-consuming preparation -- namely, the meticulous covering of everything you don't want coated with powerful pesticides, like your food, silverware, clothing, and children's toys.
Flea bombs can absolutely eliminate flea infestations. But just one or two missed larvae and not only will you have a house coated in poison, but you'll also have a dormant flea problem just waiting to re-emerge. Professional exterminators can get the job done with the least possible amount of toxins -- and they can warranty their work. According to HomeAdvisor, you can expect to pay around $100 to $300 for professional services.
The best fleas are the ones that never bother you. To prevent fleas, wash your pet's bedding at least once a week in hot water. Vacuum your carpet, curtains and furniture frequently. Groom your pet regularly and be on the lookout for irritated skin, excessive scratching and, of course, fleas. Consult your vet about preventative treatment and don't make the mistake of thinking fleas are only a summertime problem -- be vigilant all year round.
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