It is quite usual to see a steady build-up of flea infestations in late summer and autumn, but this year the build-up has occurred earlier and we are now seeing large numbers of dogs and cats with severe infestations.
What are fleas?
Fleas are wingless insects with flattened bodies and long legs which are adapted for jumping prodigious distances.
There are many fleas which can infect animals and men, but the common fleas in this area are Ctenocephalides canis, the dog flea, and Ctenocephalides felis, the cat flea. These are not very host-specific and both species will attack pigs, cattle, poultry, horses and man. The most common flea found on both the dog and cat locally is Ctenocephalides felis, the cat flea.
It is important to understand the life cycle of the flea, as this helps us in devising measures to combat the build-up of flea infestations. The adult flea sucks blood from the host animal, and, in doing so, causes considerable irritation.
The female flea lays eggs on the host, which soon fall off into the bedding or the kennel, into cracks in the flooring of the – laundry or garage, or cracks in the concrete. The eggs are white and quite large, up to 2 millimeters long.
Hatching of the eggs occurs after only a few days in warm, humid weather, but can take weeks if the weather is dry and cold.
The larvae also are quite large, up to 6 millimeters long, and they make their way into a sheltered spot, feeding on organic debris such as fragments of dry skin, and dried blood excreted by the feeding adult flea.
After about a week the larva spins a cocoon, which can adhere to carpets or bedding, or even to the matted coat of animals. At this stage, the immature flea can delay further development and remain in this state indefinitely.
Vibration is necessary to trigger the hatching from the cocoon, and if a house or flat has been left empty the cycle of the flea is suspended at the pupal stage. When stimulated by people walking on carpets or flooring, hatching is triggered and a sudden massive flea infestation follows a few days later.
How do I know if my pet has fleas?
The newly hatched fleas then seek suitable hosts. They are not very specific and the dog and cat flea commonly attack horses, cattle and man. Their frequent biting and scurrying over the surface of the skin cause intense itching and the animal can severely damage its skin in an attempt to relieve the irritation.
Some owners regard fleas as a natural companion of the dog and complain that treatments prescribed for their pet’s skin ailments have not been effective. It is impossible to relieve the discomfort of summer eczema in dogs without first eliminating all the fleas and preventing reinfestations. Fleas also act as an intermediate host for one of the larger dog tapeworms.
Fleas are not only important in causing local irritations on the host animal. They are one of the most important contributing factors in causing eczemas in the dog and cat. Certain individuals become extremely sensitive to the bite of the flea so that even the bite of one flea can produce an acute inflammatory reaction.
The common tapeworm of dogs is transmitted from dog to dog via the flea. Of course, fleas have been responsible in bygone years in the spread of such serious diseases as typhus.
What to do if my pet has fleas
The control of fleas involves the removal of the adult population on the host animal as well as controlling the immature stages in the environment.
There is a large range of treatments available for the control of fleas. Washes, soaps, sprays, powders, tablets and flea collars are all displayed wherever pet remedies are sold.
Unfortunately of late fleas in certain areas are becoming immune to some of the commonly used insecticides. When deciding upon a method of control it is wise to carry out follow-up treatments as recommended on the label.
Control measures must be also applied to the animal’s environment. As we have seen from the life cycle, many hundreds of eggs can exist in the surrounds of the kennel and bedding and unless measures are taken to kill the fleas as they emerge from pupation, re-infestation of the dog or cat will quickly occur.
To control flea infestations on the dog the most simple method is to wash the dog in a preparation containing pyrethrins or synthetic insecticides, such as Dog Flea & Tick Control. The following day, place a flea collar containing the new powder form of insecticides, rather than the older impregnated forms that emit a vapor.
These new collars contain a powder called propoxur, which disperses over the entire body of the dog and, as long as the dog does not become wet, will last up to five months. Some owners of show animals do not like to put collars on their animals, and Asuntol washes given every 7 to 10 days during the summer should prevent flea infestations in these animals.
It is not usual to wash cats in insecticides, although pyrethrin or Malathion washes are quite safe for cats. Flea collars containing propoxur are useful, especially in long-haired cats. In cats that resent flea collars or continually lose them when hunting, a flea powder containing propoxur or carbaryl is safe and efficient.
To control the free-living stages of the flea it is important to remove any loose hair and skin debris by vacuuming around the kennel or favorite haunts of the dog or cat. Change the bedding frequently and spray the area with a household insecticide.
If it is suspected that fleas have become resistant to the particular insecticide that you are using, ask your veterinarian for advice. Newer potent insecticides are available, but these must be reserved only for problem cases.