DEALING WITH FLEAS

The flea has been around for about 40 million years. It is such a tenacious pest because it reproduces explosively. One female flea can lay more than 800 eggs in her six-week lifetime. An egg can become an adult flea in less than three weeks, ready to reproduce. Within only 30 days, just 10 fleas can produce 250,000 children and grandchildren.

The flea's diet consists of blood - animal or human, the flea doesn't care. Each flea feeds about once every hour, so an animal with only 25 fleas could be bitten as much as 600 times in one day.

Besides disease - fleas and the rats they lived on transmitted the bubonic plague, or Black Death, to humans in the 14th century, wiping out a quarter of the European population. Fleas also carry other parasites, such as tapeworms.

As little as one adult flea on a dog or cat means a major infestation. Only 5% of the flea population is in the adult stage. The other 95% consists of pupae, larvae, and eggs - that "salt" in the salt and pepper residue visible in a companion animal's bedding or after combing. The "pepper" is flea excrement.

An excess of fleas can make your companion animal anemic. The constant scratching can cause hair loss. Allergies to fleas can cause hot spots. Animals can also develop large open, oozing wounds due to flea bites. All of which is dangerous to a companion animal's health and expensive to treat.

RIDDING A COMPANION ANIMAL OF FLEAS & TICKS

Fleas and ticks are at their worst in the summer. Fortunately, prevention and treatment is fairly simple. Companion animals should be checked at least once a week for ticks, fleas, or skin irritations that could lead to serious problems.

If a tick is discovered, don't twist it out with thumb and forefinger or the head will break off and stay under the skin to do further damage. To remove it, use a pair of tweezers as close to the skin as possible.

The fine teeth of a flea comb will pull most of the adults and eggs off a companion animal. Combing your animal regularly will quickly determine whether or not fleas are present (and incidentally it will help you and your companion animal form a stronger bond).

Flea shampoos are an effective means for killing fleas on a companion animal, but they are species specific. (Never use a shampoo meant for dogs on cats.) Follow the instructions carefully. For best results, start lathering at the neck and work back to the tail. Be sure to soap the tail, legs, and underbelly completely. When done, rinse your companion animal as thoroughly as possible and towel dry.

Flea shampoos are better than flea powders or sprays or dips, since when properly rinsed no flea toxins remain to make your companion animal ill.

A flea collar may help kill fleas, but it's little more than a poison strap worn by a companion animal. Also, its effectiveness against fleas deteriorates over time and it must be changed regularly.

After treatment, prevention is necessary. Even immediate killing of grown fleas is ineffective because flea eggs or pupae can stay "on hold" for months, growing to maturity when conditions for them "improve." You must get rid of them now, both inside and, if your animals are indoor/outdoor, outside as well.

FLEAS INSIDE THE HOUSE

Vacuum regularly. Because fleas thrive on the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag, sprinkle some flea powder on the floor or carpet and vacuum that up too. Dispose of the bag after vacuuming.

Flea bomb every room in the house. Use a flea bomb that contains an Insect Growth Regulator (IGR), which confuses flea larvae so they never grow to be adults. Look for the chemical name Precor. IGRs prevent flea larvae from reaching the pupae stage in your carpet for up to seven months, and are non-toxic to animals and humans. Follow the instructions on the can carefully.

Once the house and companion animals are clean, keep fleas away through preventative medicines available at your veterinarian's office. Some medicines offer a six-month regimen for your animal, of one pill or liquid supplement a month, that inhibits the growth of flea larvae into adults. Some can be applied directly to the skin on the back of the neck for cats, between the shoulder blades (and, for larger dogs, on the top of the rump) for dogs. In a day or so, it spreads over the whole body, then dries to form a matrix over the animal. It will kill 98% to 100% of the adult fleas within 24 hours.

FLEAS OUTSIDE THE HOUSE

Fleas and ticks love tall grass so mow and edge the yard well to eliminate this perfect breeding ground.

Recently, an all-natural outdoor flea control spray was developed that kills fleas within 24 hours and keeps working up to a month. The secret ingredient is beneficial nematodes, micro-organisms that prey on pre-adult fleas. They're so safe, children and companion animals can play in a yard that's just been sprayed with them. They exist only until they run out of prey. When all the fleas in the yard have been eliminated, the beneficial nematodes cease to work and biodegrade. It's important to spray with nematodes monthly, and be sure to keep them moist (not wet).

Another remedy is diatomaceous earth, a natural product consisting of fossilized one-celled plants called diatoms. While harmless to animals, this talc-like material scratches the waxy "skin" of insects, causing dehydration and death. Buy it from an organic gardening supply - do not get the diatomaceous earth that is sold for swimming pool filters - and apply as a dust all over your yard about once every couple of weeks. You can also use it inside the house.

If you spray your yard with chemicals, read the instructions carefully. What's heavily toxic to fleas will kill even beneficial insects, and may harm companion animals or family if exposed. Spray outside at dusk or later, to avoid killing bees and other beneficial insects. Keep the spray below knee-level, because fleas can jump only nine inches high. When you're through spraying, wash out your equipment thoroughly. Wash your hands and change your clothes if they have become wet in the process. Keep your companion animals off the lawn for about 24 hours or at least until it has dried. Take care in how you dispose of the leftover bottles and cartons.

STOPPING THE CYCLE

The above will only take care of the immediate problem. You must break the larval/flea cycle. To kill any dormant eggs or larvae, repeat the above steps in about two weeks. From then on, occasional maintenance should ensure a summer free of fleas for companion animals.