Fleas are the leading cause of skin problems in cats and dogs. They also infest a great many other animals, including rabbits, squirrels, rats, mice, ferrets, and many species of birds, although small mammals in captivity are not affected as frequently as dogs, outdoor cats and wild creatures. They grow and survive by feeding on animals' blood, and result in significant problems for the animals they bite by causing allergic reactions and spreading disease.
The flea population is difficult to control for a number of reasons, including the following:
- A female can lay 5000 eggs in its lifetime
- Not only adult fleas, but eggs and larvae can cause infestation
- A flea can survive more than 100 days without blood
- A flea can jump as high as 8 inches (150 times its height)
- Even indoor animals manage to get fleas
An allergic reaction to a flea bite causes itching, making the host animal extremely uncomfortable. In addition to being plagued by allergic reactions, itching, sores and scabs as a result of being bitten by fleas, animals can develop illnesses because of the bites. Although humans do not become infested with fleas, they can suffer allergies to flea bites, including hives, and have historically been infected by fatal diseases like the plague carried by fleas on rats.
Indicators of Flea Infestation
In severe cases of infestation, fleas can be seen jumping around and on the animal. In both dogs and cats, other indicators of flea infestation, depending on its extent, include:
- Excessive licking, scratching, biting of the fur or skin
- Hair loss
- Allergic reactions
- Tapeworm (transmitted by fleas)
Examining the affected animal's coat using a flea comb can confirm the presence of fleas. Black specks of flea dirt (feces) may be visible, as well as the tiny hopping creatures themselves. The fleas and flea dirt are particularly visible on the pets lower abdomen and groin where the fur may be less dense and the skin may be lighter.
Types of Flea Treatments
Fleas have a 4-stage life cycle, and all stages need to be addressed to take care of a flea problem. Treatments are animal-specific; for example, some treatments for dogs can be harmful for cats. A product's label indicates what type of animal it is appropriate for. The veterinarian should be consulted before treating small mammals or birds for fleas.
Certain treatments are less effective than others because the protection they offer is short-lived and they do not target all stages of a flea's life cycle. These include:
There are two other types of treatment. One, available under, among others, the brand names of Frontline and Advantage, is a liquid medicine that is placed between the animal's shoulder blades. It is effective in killing adult fleas for up to a month and preventing larvae from hatching, or from developing at all.
The other treatment includes oral and injectable medication that keep female fleas from producing viable eggs. This treatment, however, does not kill adult fleas, so it must be used in conjunction with other treatment.
Treating the animal alone is not enough to eliminate a flea problem. Fleas can continue to live in carpets, bedding and furniture, so an infestation can only be effectively treated by eliminating fleas at all stages of development from the household. For this purpose, household sprays and bombs are not usually as effective as treatments applied by professional exterminators.