Debugging: Getting Rid of Fleas

Most dogs love to be outside in the summer, romping in the fresh air and rolling in the grass. It's great to see your pet so happy, but how do you deal with all the critters they bring back home with them? Although fleas are not a huge health risk, they are definitely a nuisance.

Dog scratching fleas
Fleas are a nuisance for both you and your dog. Learn how to get them off your dog, and out of your home.

A flea primer

If your dog has fleas, the adult parasites will be crawling on your dog's skin, but they can be hard to detect. The biggest clue is that your dog will be scratching a lot more than usual. Look for small shiny reddish-brown bodies with no wings. This short video shows you how to examine your dog for fleas.

The adult female flea will lay her eggs on your dog's fur. The eggs do not attach themselves to your dog, so they may fall off and become embedded in your carpets and furniture. Wherever they land, the eggs hatch into larvae within 12 days. About 18 days later, the larvae enter the pupal stage, wrapping themselves into little cocoons. It's important to know that no product will kill a flea inside its cocoon. About two weeks later, the adult flea emerges from the cocoon and the life cycle starts over.

Although fleas have no wings, they are excellent jumpers and they tend to find the warmest available spot before they begin to bite. Dogs have normal body temperatures ranging from 100 - 102 degrees, which is why fleas prefer to live on them rather than on us.

Getting fleas off of your dog

The best way to fight fleas is to prevent them from ever attacking your dog in the first place. Whether you are treating or preventing, you have your choice of flea repellant collars, shampoos and sprays, topical preparations, and oral medication. What you're looking for is a product that kills adult fleas, as well as controlling flea development. Many also repel and kill ticks, mosquitoes, biting flies, and lice.

Flea and tick collars are probably about the least effective treatment. They generally kill only ticks and don't do a whole lot for fleas. Shampoos and sprays are a little better, as they kill adult fleas as well as ticks. However, they don't control flea development, meaning that whatever larvae the fleas have deposited on your dog before you kill them will remain after treatment.

Topical treatments like Advantage, K-9 Advantix, and Frontline have fallen into some disfavor because they can cause skin damage at the back of the neck where they are applied. Back in the dark ages, topical flea and tick preventatives were made of pesticides, which could easily cause skin irritation and worse. Most of the topical treatments available today are made of chemicals meant to regulate the growth of insects, and are much less toxic to your dog.

Fleas attacking dog
The best way to fight fleas is to prevent them from ever attacking your dog in the first place.

To decrease the chances of adverse effects: make sure you use the appropriate product for your pet: cat treatments for cats and dog treatments for dogs. Check the package for any minimum age restrictions. Some can be used as early as 7 - 8 weeks while others cannot be used until the dog is at least six months old. Get a prescription from your vet and use the brand he or she prescribes to make sure you aren't exposing your dog to the potentially harmful effects of an off-brand.

Oral treatments such as Program and Sentinel regulate the growth of insects and have side benefits, as well. Both products help to control many internal parasites, and Revolution is also a tick killer.

Even though fleas are more prevalent in the summer, you may need to treat your dog all year. Once any fleas come into your home, they can breed year-round, multiplying by the thousands each month.

Getting fleas out of your home

The environment inside your home is optimal for flea development. Once your pet or even your friend's pet introduces fleas to your house, getting rid of them can become a nightmare. In one month's time, a dozen fleas can produce over 2,000 offspring.

How do you know if you have fleas in your home? For one thing, your dog will be constantly scratching at his or her flea bites. You may also be bitten and itchy. Flea feces, which look similar to coarse ground black pepper, may be apparent on textile surfaces such as dog beds and carpets.

There are many fairly low-cost ways to make your home less hospitable to fleas. Botanical dusts are natural insecticides. Mixing a botanical dust with borate creates a mixture that is poisonous to fleas. Care should be taken when using this method, as the mixture is not great for humans either. Use a mask to prevent breathing in the dust. When you can be out of the house for at least 24 hours, mix up a batch of botanical dust and borate. Sprinkle it over carpets, furniture, dog beds, and your bed. Let it settle for about 24 hours while you're gone. When you come back, get rid of both the fleas and the chemicals by vacuuming the carpets and furniture, and laundering the bed linens and dog beds.

Another simple way to curb the flea population in your home is to make a mixture of water and dish detergent. Set out small, low dishes of the mixture near low light sources such as night lights. Make sure your dishes are low enough to allow the fleas to jump in. A cookie sheet with raised sides or an upside-down Frisbee should do the trick. Fleas will be attracted to the light and will jump into the "pool", only to be poisoned by the detergent.

Cedar chips emit a rather strong scent, as anyone who has ever had a hamster can tell you. Fleas hate that smell. Put a few cedar chips under your furniture and around your dog's crate.

Regular table salt can be used to dry out fleas, causing them to die. Sprinkle fine-grained salt on your carpets and vacuum it up about a week later. The flea carcasses will be sucked up with the salt. You may have to repeat the process a few times over the course of a month. When you're done, change the vacuum bag just in case you have picked up adult fleas or flea cocoons that may hatch, re-infesting your home.

Commercially available flea bombs are made of a fine particulate dust that coats everything in your home. Just as with the botanical dusts, you will need to spend some time outside of your home. Set the bombs throughout the house, based on square footage and the level of infestation you are seeing. Leave your home for the length of time specified on the packaging. When you re-enter, you will have a big job in vacuuming up the dust, scrubbing all of your non-textile furniture such as kitchen counters and bathrooms, and washing all of your bed linens. Don't forget the dog beds!

When all else fails, hire a professional. Most exterminators are equipped to deal with fleas. As with anything else, buyer beware. Ask if there is a guarantee, or if the company will re-treat if the first treatment fails. Ask about toxicity to you, your kids, and your animals. Find out what the exterminator recommends to keep fleas away in the long term.

You may end up using a combination of all of these methods to protect your dog and keep your home flea-free.


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