For millions of pets and people, the tiny flea is a remorseless enemy. The flea is a small, brown, wingless insect that uses specialized mouthparts to pierce the skin and siphon blood.
When a flea bites your dog, it injects a small amount of saliva into the skin to prevent blood coagulation. Some animals may have fleas without showing discomfort, but an unfortunate number of dogs become sensitized to this saliva. In highly allergic animals, the bite of a single flea can cause severe itching and scratching. Fleas cause the most common skin disease of dogs – flea allergy dermatitis.
If your pet develops hypersensitivity to flea saliva, many changes may result.
Remember that the flea spends the majority of its life in the environment, not on your pet, so it may be difficult to find. In fact, your dog may continue to scratch without you ever seeing a flea on him. Check your dog carefully for fleas or for signs of flea excrement (also called flea dirt), which looks like coarsely ground pepper. When moistened, flea dirt turns a reddish brown because it contains blood. If one dog in the household has fleas, assume that all pets in the household have fleas. A single flea found on your pet means that there are probably hundreds of fleas, larva, pupa and eggs in your house.
If you see tapeworm segments in your dog's stool, he may have had fleas at one time or may still have them. The flea can act as an intermediate host of the tapeworm, Dipylidium caninum. Through grooming or biting, the animal ingests an adult flea containing tapeworm eggs. Once released the tapeworm grows to maturity in the small intestine. The cycle can take less than a month, so a key to tapeworm prevention is flea control. Anemia also may be a complication of flea infestation especially in young kittens.
The Life Cycle of the Flea
The flea's life cycle has four stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult.
This development occurs more quickly in a warm, humid environment. Pupa can lie dormant for months, but under temperate conditions fleas complete their life cycle in about three weeks. The inside of your home may provide a warm environment to allow fleas to thrive year round.
Fighting the Flea
Types of commercial products available for flea control include flea collars, shampoos, sprays, powders and dips. Other, newer, products include oral and systemic spot on insecticides.
In the past, topical insecticide sprays, powders and dips were the most popular. However, the effect was often temporary. Battling infestations requires attacking areas where the eggs, larvae, pupae and adults all congregate. Because some stages of a flea's life can persist for months, chemicals with residual action are needed and should be repeated periodically. Sprays or foggers, which required leaving the house for several hours, have been used twice in 2-week intervals and then every two months during the flea season.
Treating animals and their living areas thoroughly and at the same time is vital; otherwise some fleas will survive and re-infect your pet. You may even need to treat your yard or kennel with an insecticide, if the infestation is severe enough.
The vacuum cleaner can be a real aid in removing flea eggs and immature forms. Give special attention to cracks and corners. At the end of vacuuming, either vacuum up some flea powder into your vacuum bag, or throw the bag out. Otherwise, the cleaner will only serve as an incubator, releasing more fleas into the environment as they hatch. In some cases, you may want to obtain the services of a licensed pest control company. These professionals have access to a variety of insecticides and they know what combinations work best in your area.