It seems like no matter where you live, unless you are very lucky, fleas are a major problem for most pet owners. Fleas are particularly problematic because they are not species specific as some parasites, which means they are happy to feast on your dog, your cat, the rabbit or even on the family. Fleas are more than annoying; they can carry tapeworm eggs and other diseases as well as lead to severe allergic reactions in many dogs. Some breeds are particularly prone to flea allergies and controlling fleas will be essential in these breeds.
Most vets recommend a monthly flea treatment that works to disrupt the natural cycle of development, thereby reducing the number of adult fleas on the pet and in the environment to lay eggs to produce another generation. The key to using these topical applications is to be consistent and use them on the schedule, keeping all the pets in the house treated. It will not be as effective if you only treat the dogs and not the cats or vice versa. Treat all animals at approximately the same time so you don't forget one in multiple pet households. In addition keep the carpeted areas and the dark, cozy spaces between the cushions on the couch, in the dog and cat beds, as well as between the carpet and the baseboards vacuumed on a regular basis as these are the spots where eggs and larva will be found. Fleas are normally more problematic in the spring and summer months in colder climates, but can be a huge problem year round in more moderate and temperate areas.
The Life Cycle of A Flea
To understand how to treat fleas it is important to understand their life cycle. Fleas start their life as eggs that are protected by a very hard, durable shell or outer coating. The flea eggs are produced by the female flea when she is actively feeding off a host, in this case a dog. The female flea can lay up to twenty or thirty eggs per day, with many females laying several hundred eggs before they die. The flea eggs do not stay on the dog, rather they fall off when the dog scratches, moves or shakes. They often are found in bedding and furniture, but are so small they really cannot be seen except under ideal conditions. The dark pepper-looking flakes found on the skin of the dog are not the eggs, it is actually what is known as "flea dirt" or the waste material produced by the digestion of the dog's blood.
The eggs, once they have fallen into a dark, slightly humid spot will then start to develop into larva or will remain dormant until the conditions are right. Eggs can stay like this for a few days to several weeks before they proceed to the next phase.
The larva emerge from the flea egg and immediately start to feed on any flea dirt or adult flea feces they can find as well as any other food debris or other types of organic material including dead skin cells. They move about and can be easily seen with the use of magnifying glass once you know what to look for. The larva stages last about five to eighteen days before the larva spins a cocoon and goes in the pupa stage. In the cocoon the pupa grows into the adult if the conditions are right, or it can stay dormant for up to a year in this safe container. Most chemicals and flea medications will not affect the pupa as it is well protected in the cocoon. The flea will stay in the cocoon until it is stimulated by the right humidity, carbon monoxide from an animal or humans breath, or the body heat of an animal or human. It can almost instantly break from the cocoon, emerging as a fully functional adult flea that is ready to start sucking blood from the host dog, cat or human in the house.
The adult flea is the easiest to control with all flea products working to kill him or her before they are able to produce eggs. Severe flea infestations can actually kill tiny puppies and kittens, especially if there are other health conditions present. Since most of the total flea population in any environment being mostly in the safe egg and pupa stage it is really hard to control these parasites.
Treatment and Control
Typically treatment of an infected area requires more than one approach. It may be necessary to chemically treat carpeting, furniture and pet and human bedding, as well as use powder or spray treatments in potentially high flea infestation areas. Flea powders, dips, shampoos, medications and combs can be used to remove all current adult fleas, and then repeated every thirty days to continue to eliminate other adults as they hatch out of their protected stages of the lifecycle.
Currently there is new research into developing products that will interfere with the protection of the eggs, thereby eliminating not the adults but massive number of eggs that are produced. This medication may be ideal to break the life cycle, but will not address issues that some dogs have with extreme allergic reactions to the flea saliva that is only a problem in adult fleas. Since fleas are so very mobile and can jump incredible distances it is easy for a dog to pick up fleas on a quick walk to the park or even by stopping to sniff and play with another dog that is not treated.
The least effective treatments tend to be the over the counter flea treatments such as flea collars, shampoo's and powders. They tend to work immediately but have no long term effectiveness. Some of these products can also cause skin irritations and other problems so be sure to talk to your vet before using any over the counter flea medications.
Some owners and vets work with a combination of products to both treat the adult fleas, decrease the viability of the eggs, as well as provide antihistamine treatments for the very sensitive dogs.