The itchy and scratchy show: Seriously, what’s up with all the fleas?


File photo. File photo.

Fleas are completely awful. I try to reserve some respect for nature, and I suppose fleas must have their place, but they aren’t the sort of thing that inclines a person to wax poetic about the circle of life. They are ugly, itchy, and can multiply from one to thousands in a few weeks. They drink blood, poop in your pet’s fur, and carry tapeworm. And those are the relatively nice things. Remember when they helped kill half of Europe in the 1300s?

Luckily, we’ve grown very adept at killing the little buggers. The safety and efficacy of modern flea preventatives is extraordinary. There are a variety of products available for fleas, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Some are squirted onto your pet’s skin. Some are taken orally. Some kill fleas faster. Some just kill them in a different way. The list of flea products is long and confusing, and getting bigger by the day.

The size of that list makes it impossible to give a single “best choice,” and you should speak with your veterinarian about what makes sense for your situation. But here’s the truth: If you don’t want your pets to have fleas, your pets don’t need to have fleas. Somewhere in that list is a product that can safely be used to solve your problem.

And this is where the frustration sets in. You’ve been using a preventative, but are still seeing fleas. What gives? Do you have super fleas? Are fleas developing resistance to preventatives? These questions are frequently answered with wild speculation, leading to even more frustration and confusion. As of now, absolutely no resistance has been found (and make no mistake, researchers have been looking). That’s not to say it can’t develop in the future. We’ve all seen Jurassic Park. Life finds a way. But as of 2013, fleas are as vulnerable to preventatives as they ever were.

If it’s not resistance, then what is it? Truth is, it’s a lot of things. The biggest, perhaps, is that flea preventatives aren’t magic, despite what their manufacturers tell you. Commercials show green cartoon ninjas swinging in to destroy the invading hordes in a flurry of kitanas and throwing stars. Needless to say, these products do not actually use ninja-based technology, and pet owners frequently aren’t advised of their limitations. One dose doesn’t solve the problem. Established infestations can take months to fall into retreat, and will come back quickly if preventatives are discontinued. Fleas leave cocoons containing their horrid little offspring all over the place, and they can remain viable for months, springing back to life as soon as they get the chance.

Once you have fleas, you can’t just fight them on an as-needed basis. Every animal in the home needs to be protected, or they will just find somewhere else to live. And even with prevention, fleas can still hop onto your pet for a little while. They won’t live very long, but you’re still likely to see them until the environmental supply has been wiped out. Buying one or two doses of preventative when you spot some fleas is a waste of money. Getting rid of fleas is a war of attrition, not a blitz. If you feel like your product isn’t working, it may just be that it’s not working the way you expected it to.

If a large part of the problem comes from the environment, it stands to reason that controlling the environment is a good idea. With established infestations, I always recommend a thorough vacuuming of the home. Those cocoons I mentioned earlier literally glue themselves to carpet fibers, so make sure your vacuum has a rotating brush to loosen their grip. Linens should be run through a hot wash to reduce their numbers even further.

A final word on safety. Many pet owners are concerned about the use of chemicals and poisons on their pets. I can’t argue the basic point. Fleas are pests, and they are killed with pesticides. But that simple statement doesn’t have enough resolution to see the situation as it is. On a daily basis, I see dogs and cats suffering miserably with fleas—perpetually distracted, unable to sleep, and tearing their own skin to shreds. Used properly, the current generation of flea preventatives is remarkably safe, and just as remarkably effective. Natural alternatives (ranging from garlic to brewer’s yeast) are well-intentioned, but ultimately futile. I wish they worked, but they really don’t.

Fleas have been pestering animals since long before pets had veterinarians. The good news is we finally have the tools to stop them. We just need to use them correctly.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003, and has lived in Charlottesville since.