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Fight Fleas With These Tips From Dr. Marty Becker

For every flea you see on your dog, hundreds more may be in your house and yard. Win the battle against this misery-causing pest.

Dr. Marty Becker  |  Jul 24th 2015


Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our June/July issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bi-monthly magazine delivered to your home.

Imagine if there’s a hell for dogs: It would feature hundreds of fleas, biting them incessantly, producing thousands of backup biters (that also bite humans), with no way for the canines to remove the health threat fleas pose or to relieve the misery they cause. Adding to the hurt is the fact that dogs actually have cat fleas. Huh?

Unfortunately for many dogs, it’s hell on earth, as they face the exact scenario above, inside their homes or out in the yard, with fleas working around the clock draining blood, breeding, and adding misery.

Photo of Dr. Marty Becker courtesy Dr. Marty's Facebook page

Dr. Marty Becker photo courtesy Dr. Marty’s Facebook page.

Fortunately, we now have the latest technologies in flea control available to keep pets and their environments relatively flea-free. If you live in an area with a lot of fleas, you have to realize that the war is never-ending, but if you’re diligent, you can terminate the masses and keep killing the new biters that show up.

When you speak of flea control 101, it can include flea combs, vacuuming the carpets, washing your pet’s bedding frequently, or using companies that can put a powdery, algae-based product called diatomaceous earth into your carpeting to help stop fleas. But for a graduate degree in flea control, chemical science has brought an incredible variety of products that provide simple, safe, surefire flea control with less risk to the pet, human family, and the environment. There is simply no reason not to have effective control of fleas, period.

summer-hazards-dogs-fleas.jpg

Fleas by Shutterstock.

Why is the cat flea not called the dog flea?

In the 1830s, a Frenchman by the name of Bouché took a flea off of a cat, described it in scientific literature, and gave it the name Pulex felis (“felis” is Latin for “cat”). He actually got the first part, the genus, wrong, but he was the first to use felis as a species name for flea. The Entomological Society of America gives all insects common names, so Ctenocephalides felis (with the correct genus) was officially the cat flea.

Bouché could have taken the same flea from a dog, fox, or lynx in France, and today we might be calling it the dog, fox, or lynx flea. There is a dog flea — Ctenocephalides canis — which, as you might suspect, was first described after its removal from a dog. However, this is a rare species and has seldom been caught in a flea comb in North America over the past 30 years.

Itchy Papillon puppy by Shutterstock

Itchy Papillon puppy by Shutterstock.

Why worry about fleas anyway?

For starters, flea bites hurt the pet. Owners have said to me in a tone that seeks to downplay the problem, “Do we really need to use this parasite control product forever? He’s only got a few fleas.” To which I respond, “When was the last time you got bitten by any insect that you were able to ignore it and not worry about getting bitten again?”

Simply put, insect bites equal misery. Secondly, fleas can cause a variety of other problems, including flea allergy dermatitis and anemia, in severe cases, and they can carry tapeworms. And nobody likes tapeworms, as they even creep vets out.

See that itsy flea on your itchy pet? Within the next month, that flea — with a little help from her girlfriends — could fill your house with thousands of descendants. What’s more, for every flea you see on your pet, there are hundreds of eggs, larvae, pupae, and emerging fleas that are not on your pet; they’re in the yard, on the floors, and in the linen, says Dr. Michael Dryden, D.V.M., Ph.D., DACVM, a distinguished professor at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Dryden is one of the world’s best-known veterinary parasitologists and is widely referred to as “Dr. Flea.”

As you might imagine from seeing all the television and print ads for flea control products, fleas are big business. So which product should you buy? The answer is simple and complex. Why? Because there is typically one flea control product that works best for each pet. Note I said, “works best.”

A Golden Retriever has the itchies. It's probably fleas. Golden Retriever grooming by Shutterstock

A Golden Retriever has the itchies. It’s could be fleas. Golden Retriever grooming by Shutterstock.

For one dog who swims a lot, an oral product that doesn’t wash off might be best. Another dog may respond best to a new-generation product. So how do you pick and choose? Simple. You ask your veterinarian or veterinary hospital for advice.

I’ve counseled thousands of pet owners on flea control. I like to do what I call a personal pet health protocol for each pet at the annual physical exam, where we look at breed, life stage, lifestyle, current health status, and any emerging risks. Then I prescribe a product I think will be the best for each pet. While I may recommend products that are only available from a veterinarian, we also ask pet owners where they intend to buy their products. If they want to buy online, we’ll happily provide a prescription after the pet has had a physical exam, or tell them which products would be best from those available in a pet store, grocery store, farm store, or big box.

What about the Internet rumblings that some parasite products kill dogs?

Dryden told me via email that “reports of adverse events following administration of a drug can take on a life of their own, in this day and age of social media. As veterinarians and/or scientists, we must be careful not to get caught up in these discussions without facts. This does not mean that true adverse reactions do not occur following administration of a drug. But we need to let science, not the Internet or investigative reporting, drive our decisions in drug selection.” It points again to the fact that you should ask your trusted local veterinarian which flea product is the best for each of your dogs.

How to use a flea comb

A flea’s body has tiny hairs, but the purpose of a flea comb is not to remove its tiny tangles. When pulled through your dog’s fur, the comb latches onto fleas, trapping them in its fine teeth. To use the comb most effectively, start at your dog’s head and move toward the tail. The most common areas where fleas are found are the neck and the rear end, so check them extra carefully. A flea comb’s main purpose is to confirm that your dog indeed has fleas. If you find any, talk to your vet about starting your dog on a preventive to make those fleas flee.

Vet combs dog by Shutterstock

Vet combs dog by Shutterstock.

Battle fleas year-round

Fleas are extremely adaptable, and even in challenging environments manage to survive in microclimates, according to Dr. Michael Paul, former president of the American Animal Hospital Association, and former CEO and executive director of the Companion Animal Parasite Council. It is impossible to predict when they will re-emerge in vast numbers.

The only effective means of battling fleas is to practice flea control and use effective treatments year-round. In accordance with the AAHA-American Veterinary Medical Association Preventive Healthcare Guidelines, every dog and cat “should receive … year-round broad-spectrum parasite control with efficacy against heartworms, intestinal parasites, and fleas.” CAPC guidelines also advocate for year-round control against heartworms, intestinal parasites, and fleas, and add ticks as well. Your veterinarian is your best source of information about flea prevention and control.

No matter what product you use, follow the advice of the Companion Animal Parasite Council and do year-round parasite control on all pets. This means not starting and stopping depending on the seasons, not skipping control because it’s not a “bad” flea year, nor forgoing treatment for pets that are indoor only.

Learn more about dog health on Dogster:

About the author: Dr. Marty Becker, “America’s Veterinarian,” has spent his life working toward better health for pets and the people who love them. The author of 24 books, Dr. Becker was the resident veterinary contributor on Good Morning America for 17 years. He is currently a member of the board of directors of the American Humane Association, as well as its chief veterinary correspondent; a founding member of Core Team Oz for The Dr. Oz Show; and a member of the Dr. Oz Medical Advisory Board. When his schedule allows, he practises at North Idaho Animal Hospital. Connect with him on Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, and Google Plus.