Ask your vet for the best way to get rid of fleas

By Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Published 24/09/2016 | 00:00

Above a flea up close (Prof. Dr. H. Mehlhorn, Heinrich Heine University). Inset: looking for flea dirt in a dog's coat.

Mary placed her small dog on the table in front of me, and said one word: 'Fleas'.

She then went on to explain what had happened. Her terrier had been scratching for the previous week, and it had been getting worse. As many people do these days, she'd Googled 'itchy dog', and she'd learned that fleas were a common cause. She discovered from the website what fleas looked like: around 3-4mm long, black or dark brown, like flattened versions of ants. They move quickly through the coat, especially when they've been spotted, as if they have an instinctive sense of self preservation. She checked her dog's coat, she couldn't find any of these small creepy crawlies.

However she did find something else that the website mentioned: flea dirt. This is a scattering of black specks of dust in a pet's coat that fleas leave behind: it's actually flea droppings, passed by fleas after they've drunk and digested the blood from the dog or cat. Once she'd found these black specks in her dog's coat, as instructed by the website, she placed them onto a piece of moist cotton wool. The black specks dissolved, forming reddish brown smudges, evidence that the specks were actually small clumps of digested blood. This was definitive proof of fleas: nothing else other than flea dirt behaves like this.

Now Mary knew why her dog was itching, so she went to the local pet shop and bought some 'flea drops' to apply to the back of her dog's neck. The blurb on the packet included reassuring words like 'clinically proven', 'repels fleas' and 'up to twelve weeks' protection'. She applied the drops, and waited for her dog to stop scratching. Two days later, her pet was still itching as much as ever. When she checked his coat, the black specks were still as numerous as before. At this stage, she brought her dog to see me.

I am seeing many pets with fleas right now: it's the peak flea season. The life cycle of the flea is dependent on environmental conditions. After feeding on a pet, a female flea hops off, and lays eggs that go on to develop into young adult fleas. In warm, moist weather, the rate at which this happens speeds up dramatically. It's been a mild summer this year, which means that there has been a steady build up of the flea population outdoors for the past six months. We are almost in October, when the weather will cool down, and the fleas outside will become inactive. There will still be issues with fleas inside centrally heated homes, where it will still be warm enough, but pet dogs and cats will be less likely to come back from outdoor excursions carrying fleas.

Right now, however, the parks and fields that are popular dog walking areas are likely to be hot beds of fleas, with many pets coming home carrying fleas. So what can people do about fleas, and how could I help Mary with her itchy dog?

There's a place for the pet shop/ supermarket products that she'd bought, but you need to read the fine print on the packaging. Many are designed to 'repel' fleas, not to kill them. While they may lessen the risk of your pet coming home with fleas if you use them regularly, they're not strong enough to deal with a serious flea problem. If your pet has fleas or flea dirt in their coat, your local vet is the person who is best able to provide you with the right products to tackle the problem. A wide variety of flea killing products have been developed in the past twenty years, and the best answer depends on the individual nature of your pet.

For example, there are topical spot-on products and sprays that last for up to two months: some kill only fleas, others include roundworms, and others include lungworm. There are also new oral medications, including a tablet that provides three months continual protection against fleas. Studies have shown that these products will remove virtually every flea from your pet within 24 hours. All of these products are safe, as long as you follow the instructions on the label. Care is needed, of course: if a product for a large dog was applied to a cat, there'd be a risk of serious harm. It's for this reason that the products are only sold through vets: professional supervision is important. Some people use these products just to treat their pets when they have fleas, but after a bad experience with fleas, many owners choose to treat their pets routinely, on a continual basis, to prevent fleas.

As well as treating the animal, it's important to treat the place where the pets live. Adult female fleas jump off their animal hosts and crawl into carpets, furniture and cracks in floorboards. When they have found a cosy corner, they lay hundreds of eggs. Those eggs can remain dormant for up to six months. If your pet has fleas, your home also has fleas. Vets sell an effective environmental spray that kills adult fleas as well as stopping any flea eggs from developing into adults, protecting the home for up to a year.

Mary chose the long acting tablet to treat her dog for fleas, and she also took a can of the household spray. I was able to stop her dog itching immediately by giving an anti-inflammatory injection.

Of course it's true that her visit to the vet cost money, but her problem has been solved. If you have a flea issue that you want to be solved quickly, talk to your vet.

Wexford People

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