Veterinary Clinic: We're at War

James Bay Veterinary Clinic

Dr. Hagerty and Avery

Although they may not have made an appearance in the recent Winter Olympics, an unlikely candidate with true Olympic calibre athletic abilities may currently inhabit your home. Cat fleas (Ctenocephalides felis) are the most common parasitic athletes affecting both your dogs and cats. Typically, only 2-3 mm in size, fleas can jump 160 times their body length while reaching speeds of up to 6.9 km/h. This would translate to a long jump of 295 meters for a human! Although virtually blind and preferring the dark, the female flea will find her host by jumping up to 30,000 times. Once “home” on your pet, she can consume 15 times her own body weight in blood daily, providing her with the strength to pull 160,000 times her own body weight. The first “famous” fleas were found performing in an “extraordinary exhibition of industrious fleas” on the streets of London in the early 1820’s, in what was later coined as “flea circuses.” Today however, despite their physical talents, fleas are not something you or your pet want to become closely acquainted with.

 The Attack:

Fleas are external parasites that live off the blood of their hosts. The fleabites leave red firm welts on the skin, which can form crusting, irritating lesions. These lesions are exceedingly itchy for your pet, causing biting and scratching to the irritated area, exacerbating the lesions and causing localized hair loss. As the flea feeds it secretes saliva which can cause an allergic reaction in some dogs and cats, leading to flea allergy dermatitis. This can cause more issues due to self-inflicted trauma and even secondary bacterial skin infections. The favourite places for the flea to inhabit your pet include the top of the tail, along the rump, belly and the back.

Fleas themselves are carriers of other pathogens and diseases and can lead to additional systemic problems. Young puppies and kittens are at risk of blood loss from heavy flea infestation, leading to potentially life-threatening anaemia. As your pets grooms themselves, they may also ingest adult fleas, which carry tapeworm cysts, causing internal parasite infections.

Yes, fleas bite humans as well. In addition to the growing desire to scratch at the imaginary fleabites appearing on your ankles as you read this, you now also know that fleas can also transmit diseases such as typhus, the plague, as well as the bacteria Bartonella henselae, which causes “cat scratch fever”.

Know Your Enemy:

Before you wage war on all fleas and banish your pet from stepping foot in your bed until your home is flea free, understating the life cycle of a flea will give you the tools needed to plan your attack.

An adult flea can survive for ten days on your pet, laying up to 50 eggs per day. This yields as many as 500 eggs per flea, which fall off your pet into your home. Larvae hatch in 1-10 days and survive by consuming adult flea feces (yes, flea feces are the digested blood of your beloved pet). As the larvae complete their growth cycle, they eventually spin a cocoon. Cocoons often are nestled within carpet fibers or cracks between floorboards. These protective houses designed for pupation are sticky and resilient; allowing the pupae to remain safe from freezing, drying and even some insecticides. Seven to140 days can pass before adult fleas emerge, completing the cycle.

Multifactorial Retaliation:

Due largely to the fact that the flea does not spend its whole life on your pet, we must treat both the pet and the environment.

Safe, effective flea control products are widely available from your veterinarian. Typically they are either in the form of an oral “chew “or topical “spot on” formula. These products kill adult fleas (as well as larva with some products) and work to prevent adult fleas from re-infesting pets during their specific length of protection for your pet.

When using a flea control product, it is very important to use one prescribed for your pet, as not all products are safe for all ages of pets and products are carefully dosed according to your pet’s weight. Never use a product designed for another species, as some products can be toxic to specific species; for example permethrin-containing products should never be used on cats. Additionally, some pet store products can be harmful to your pet. Ask your vet before giving any flea treatments. 

Now is also the time for spring cleaning! Vacuuming is your first line of defence. Those endless spinning brushes, hard plastic rollers and ferocious currents of life sucking air damage the protective waxy cuticle of the pupae’s cocoon, which allows dehydration to occur, killing them. The vibration of the vacuum also mimics a pet walking across the surface of a carpet to the blind hibernating pupae, encouraging them to emerge as adults expecting to find a warm and delicious host. It is important to vacuum baseboards, any crevices and all areas your pets go. Ensure the vacuum bag is promptly dumped in the rubbish after you are finished before your tiny Olympic athletes jump to safety. Wash all pet bedding in hot water and use a registered Insect Growth Regulator (IGR) spray designed for fleas for hard to clean areas, such as your cat’s scratching posts or fabric furniture. Always take care when handling these products and follow directions carefully to protect yourself and your pet. Lastly, use your resources. Ask your veterinarian if your pet might have fleas and the best way to treat them in your individual situation.

Let the flea hunting begin! Now is the time to win the war against this miniature itch-inducing athlete.

Poem: The Camas Children of Beacon Hill

Poem: The Camas Children of Beacon Hill

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