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Controlling fleas, or how to make life more comfortable for pets

Brian Maddy County extension agent

June 20, 2014

Fleas can be a source of intense irritation for both pets and their owners.


Anyone who has pets has had to deal with fleas. Fleas are wingless insects that have the capacity to jump 7 inches vertically and 13 inches horizontally. This would be the equivalent of a human jumping 250 feet vertically and 450 feet horizontally. Not even our moon walkers could do that.


For a creature about 1/16th of an inch long, fleas are the gold medal jumpers of the animal kingdom. These external parasites have mouth parts adapted for one purpose: piecing skin to suck blood. These agile insects are so tough that they can withstand the pressure of pinching between the fingers or scratching.


Fleas, besides being extremely irritating by sucking blood and causing allergic reactions, can be vectors for diseases such as murine typhus, tularemia and the plague. The rats on ships infested with fleas transported the black plague from port to port and from country to country during the middle ages.


Flea bites on pets may cause sores from constant scratching and biting. Fleas usually bite humans on the lower legs and elsewhere. A small, red, itchy spot surrounded by a halo is the usual sign. If you are highly sensitive to the bite, please see a doctor.


Before you can control fleas, it’s important to know something about their life cycle. Fleas have four life stages, egg, larva, pupa and adult. The adults only comprise 5 percent of all fleas.


The adult flea will spend its lifetime on the host animal, approximately two weeks in which it will lay up to 20 eggs per day, which will drop off. For every flea you see on your pet, add 300 on them or in their environment.


The eggs hatch and the larva feed on the flea droppings and organic matter in the carpet. The maggots are blind and avoid sunlight.


It usually takes about two weeks for the maggots to develop into pupa. They can stay in the pupa stage for up to 200 days until the right conditions are present – warmth, vibration and carbon dioxide, just what you or your pet provides.


This is why people can move into a new house and suddenly have a flea problem. Fleas love warm, moist areas: dog bedding, carpet, couches, under the porch and moist areas in the yard.


So, how can we control these pesky parasites? You can’t control just one aspect of the problem; you must attack them all simultaneously.


First you vacuum the house and furniture thoroughly and wash the pet bedding in hot water to kill the eggs and larva. Make sure you put the vacuum bags in the trash immediately.


Treat the fleas on the pets. There are several topical once per month treatments that are effective. Make sure you follow the label directions.


Some products are safe on dogs and toxic to cats. Consult with your vet before giving a product to your pet, especially if they are young, nursing, pregnant, sick or old.


There are effective flea and tick collars as well. Collars do not affect current population of fleas. Products that are effective tend to be expensive.


Areas outside where pets may hang out – usually shaded, moist areas – can be dusted with insecticides, but be aware if you have children playing outside. You may have to do repeat applications. You may have to keep stray animals and wild life out of the yard as well.


Flea control is an ongoing process. Persistence is the key.


Brian Maddy is the ANR Agent for Troup Cooperative Extension. The Troup County Extension office is located at 114 Church St. in LaGrange and may be reached at 706-883-1675, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.