Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Fighting fleas fairly...for good!

They're everywhere, everyone's heard of them, and nobody likes them - fleas! This is the time of year that we start seeing a lot of flea problems at Exclusively Cats: on stray cats, on indoor/outdoor cats, and even on indoor cats. 

Fleas are pretty universal on outdoor critters like rabbits and squirrels, and cats love to lie in grassy areas that these smaller animals tend to inhabit. Even if the cat and the rabbit aren't in the same spot at the same time, flea eggs and larvae may be present in the soil where the cat chooses to sit, and thus, the problem begins...


4 Stages of the Flea Life Cycle and proportion of adult fleas to eggs
The flea lifecycle and family pyramid
The flea life cycle is a metamorphosis just like many other insects such as the butterfly. There is an egg stage, a larval stage, a pupa (cocoon) and an adult.

In Michigan, correlating with humidity, the flea’s growth cycle begins in the spring, typically around tax day, April 15th.

The flea’s most rapid growth cycle is from July to September and this is when most of us recognize the presence of the fleas and start working towards treatment.

If you see a flea on your cat, you are seeing only 5% of the problem. Fifty percent of the fleas in your home will be those in egg stage in the carpet or other areas where your cat likes to spend time.

Each female flea will produce up to 50 eggs per day. It can take as little as a single day for the eggs to hatch in ideal conditions (like a hot, humid summer), producing a single larva (caterpillar). Each larva takes up to 4 weeks before forming a cocoon (pupa, chrysalis). The adult flea takes up to 4 weeks to form within the cocoon.

Ten percent of the flea population is present in cocoon form. The adult flea may remain dormant for over 1 year in this cocoon. It is important to note that the flea's cocoon is like a tiny bomb shelter; nothing will kill the forming flea in the cocoon. This means that if you have fleas right now, 10% of the infestation is almost impossible to remove by any means. This is why effective control of the other life stages is imperative, and also why we must treat infestations for several months consistently to thoroughly eliminate all the fleas in a home.

Adult flea
Usually this flea will use its strong legs to break free from the cocoon and get on your pet in the early spring and summer. Fleas evolved to be very efficient about getting onto the animal on their first try. In humid conditions, the adult flea is stimulated to emerge in response to vibration, heat and exhaled carbon dioxide. In nature, the flea may only get one chance to succeed, and if they miss, they may become a meal for another insect.

Once on a host, the adult flea never leaves, and if removed will die within 72 hours. The female will begin laying eggs within 48 hours of her first meal, which translates to about about 2,000 eggs in her three to four month lifespan.

It is important to understand that if you discover fleas in your home during the months of July or later, you WILL have fleas in your home the following spring or summer. It does not matter what you do to treat your pet or household, fleas will persist in the cocoon stage into the following year. The best course of action is to treat your pets now and plan to begin treatment again in the spring in order to derail the life cycle of the flea.

We encourage vacuuming often, which may rid the home of a number of the cocoons, change your vacuum bag frequently and to treat each household pet monthly with Revolution or Advantage Multi. These products kill adult fleas, and have a weakening effect on the eggs and larvae. It is important to treat all pets in the home, even if they are not cats, because fleas will harbor on untreated pets in the home and the problem will continue. 

It has been found that flea collars are really not very useful, because all they do is deter the fleas to the tail end of the cat, and they have no effect on the eggs or larvae.

Flea dirt on a cat
Flea dirt on a cat
Common signs of a flea problem are black specks in the fur called "flea dirt". This material is actually digested blood that has passed through the digestive tract of the adult flea, or "flea poop".  This material falls off the cat into the environment and nourishes the larvae there. You can distinguish flea dirt from actual dirt by collecting some on a paper towel and rubbing some water into it. It will leave red smudges on the paper towel, indicating that it is blood.

Many cats do not itch when they have fleas, and many will still maintain a beautiful, glossy coat, however some cats have a syndrome called Flea Allergy Dermatitis and will lose hair around the base of the tail and the neck where fleas primarily like to hang out. You may see scabs on the skin and your cat may be "twitchy" when you pet him. This problem requires other medications to help control the itching while the flea problem is eliminated. 

One further problem that can result from a flea infestation is that of the tapeworm. Cats ingest a large number of the fleas on their bodies. Dipylidium tapeworms are carried in the flea and transmitted to the cat when she grooms herself. Tapeworms are difficult to diagnose with a routine stool exam because the tapeworm segments (egg packets) that pass in the stool are mobile, and often migrate off the stool before it is collected to take to the veterinary office for testing. More often, cat owners see little tapeworm segments that look like grains of rice in the hair around the base of their cat's tail. Tapeworms are treated with a dewormer like Drontal Plus or Profender.

A monthly application of a flea and heartworm preventive like Revolution or Advantage Multi will prevent fleas from ever being an issue. Topical flea-only preventive products are usually "you get what you pay for" in terms of how effective they are. If you are committed to getting rid of your flea problem, buy a safe, effective flea product, not the lowest cost product on the market. While we do recommend broad spectrum anti-parasite medications, targeting the fleas with flea-specific Frontline or Advantage II is also an option.

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