Treating pets for fleas easy, necessary
Sunday, May 1, 2011
LOS ANGELES -- Veterinarian Kim Nicholas lost several patients because fleas sucked the blood out of them.
He was skeptical 10 years ago when the first topical treatments came out, but for his patients' sake, he decided to give them a try.
A 10-pound cat was brought in covered with thousands of fleas and already suffering from anemia. Nicholas put a dose of the new product on the cat, laid it on a white towel and put it in a kennel.
"End of the day, the white towel was black with dead flea bodies. I couldn't find a live flea anywhere. That really made a convert out of me, a real believer. It shows that used properly, these drugs are very effective and fast," said Nicholas, past president of the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association and owner of the Cedar River Animal Hospital in Renton, Wash.
Once they got rid of the fleas, they were able to treat the cat's infections and inflammation, he said.
When used properly, nothing kills fleas the way today's topical and oral treatments do, said Nicholas, a vet for 27 years.
In the past, a flea-ridden dog could infest an entire home, including upholstered furniture and human bedding. But today's flea products are so effective, pet owners no longer have to treat their whole houses, said Alec Gerry, an associate extension specialist in the Entomology Department at the University of California, Riverside.
Even so, it is a good idea to vacuum or change bedding at the same time a pet is treated.
Summer is flea season in some states, while in other parts of the country, like Florida and California, fleas bother pets almost year-round.
Commonly used flea control products include Frontline and Advantage. They are sold online and in stores without a prescription and are packaged in individual doses for direct application onto the pet's skin. Nicholas said they are considered safe.
"You put it between the shoulder blades so they can't lick it off. I've never seen a bad reaction, except they might get a little rash at the application site," he said.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on April 20 announced a national campaign to emphasize the importance of flea treatments for pets. It teamed up with PetArmor, a new generic -- and therefore cheaper -- topical anti-flea product available in retail stores like Walmart.
The ASPCA, which will use the product at its shelter and adoption center, said it has the same concentration of fipronil -- the active ingredient that fights fleas -- as Frontline.
Sergeant's Pet Care Products, Inc. has just introduced two generic versions of Frontline and Frontline Plus. FiproGuard and FiproGuard Plus are available in PetSmart, Petco and other pet retailers. Pronyl OTC and Pronyl OCT Plus are at grocery stores, drug stores and mass retailers.
Nicholas called flea powder, flea collars, and some flea dips "old-school flea control."
But combing or brushing your pet is still a good idea, he said. How do you kill a flea on a comb? Soapy water or crunching them with your fingernail, Nicholas said.
Baths can be fun for dogs and some cats, but you probably won't be able to keep their fur submerged in soap long enough to kill the fleas, Gerry said.
Some of the products available today not only kill adult fleas but contain insect growth regulators to kill eggs.
Tips for owners
Avoid products that contain organophosphates or insecticide, Nicholas said.
And be sure to read the label before using any product. Products differ for cats and dogs, and dosage differs by the animal's weight. You also want to observe safe-handling procedures for yourself and your family. Frontline advises avoiding contact with human skin, eyes or clothing, and thorough hand-washing after applying to your pet.
Flea treatment is no problem for most dog breeds, Nicholas said, but shelties and collies cannot handle the drug Ivermectin, which is used in flea products that try to treat heartworm at the same time.
Untreated flea infestations cause pets to itch, scratch and "chew themselves raw," Nicholas said.
Fleas can spread tapeworm and a tick-borne illness called Bartonella. A flea-riddled pet might become sluggish, start vomiting, get diarrhea and salivate excessively.
If a human doesn't intervene, dogs and cats can't get rid of fleas, the veterinarian said.
It's different in the wild, where almost every animal (especially those who burrow) has fleas, Gerry said. Many wild animals will develop immunity to fleas by producing antibodies to protein in flea saliva, he said, while others will dust bathe or have grooming habits that dislodge adult fleas.
Green or homemade products can be risky, the ASPCA said.
Some remedies use citrus products and diatomaceous earth, but Charlotte Means, senior toxicologist for the ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center, said citrus plants like oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit contain essential oils and are chemicals.
"As with all chemicals, the dose makes the poison. Homemade dips are not standardized, and are not recommended since pets can be overdosed. Overdosing essential oils can cause mild to life-threatening signs," she said.
"Diatomaceous earth is nontoxic but can cause problems if inhaled or large quantities are ingested."
Fleas can consume 15 times their body weight in blood, they can jump two feet high and 10,000 times in a row (the length of three football fields), they can live up to 21 months, produce millions of offspring, and kill a dog or cat with one bite if the pet is allergic to flea saliva, according to the ASPCA. Fleas measure between one and three millimeters in length -- about the thickness of a penny.
"They are pretty amazing athletes," Gerry said. They have six legs and part of their bodies work like an elastic ligament or rubber band, he said.
"There is much less risk treating a pet than not treating a pet and it's much easier to prevent a flea infestation than it is to get rid of once it hits," said Nicholas.