Despite what you have heard from other pet owners or read on the internet, food is not the most common cause of itching in pets. Parasites, particularly fleas, are still the number one cause of itching in pets. No one likes to admit that their pet may have parasites, so they practice what we veterinarians call “fleanial.” Fleanial is the strident refusal to believe a pet and its household has a flea problem despite the black flea “poop” all over the vet exam table and scurrying fleas on the pet itself. Even when I put water on the black flea dirt and it turns red indicating that it is the blood that was sucked out of their pet, I am given a disbelieving stare or comment.
Why is fleanial so common? I think that the life-cycles of parasites are complex enough that it is difficult to immediately understand the problem. I also think we veterinarians do not spend enough time explaining that life-cycle and how our flea treatments affect and alter it. So what are some of the major roadblocks that create fleanial?
Knowing Where Fleas Come From
A flea infestation of a pet starts with the environment. Fleas jump onto a pet from inside the house, the yard, the park, and the “potty walk.” These adult fleas spend their entire life (2 - 3.5 months) on one single pet sucking the blood and producing eggs (females can lay 2,000 eggs in their short life). The eggs fall from your pet or any animal with fleas, including feral cats and dogs, and wildlife, like raccoons, opossums, skunks, coyotes, rodents, and other wild mammals. The eggs hatch releasing larvae into the environment. The larvae live off of debris in the environment and eventually spin a protective covering and molt into pupae (remember the cocoon in your butterfly study in elementary school). When environmental conditions are right young fleas hatch from their cocoon and are ready to attach to the nearest mammal.
Fleas can use your shoes and pants as a ride to invade your home and attach to your pets. This is how seemingly immune households with pets that are indoor-only become contaminated by fleas. These creatures can also penetrate screened windows and sliding doors, especially the ground floor of apartments and houses.
What this means is that the environment is the source of flea infestations and fleas on the animals keep the environment loaded with eggs. That is why treating the yard without treating the animal is not likely to solve the problem. A treatment program for the animal is the better way to solve the problem.
How Flea Treatment Works
The variety of topical or oral flea treatments presently available all work the same way. Whether it is a monthly treatment, every three months, or every eight months, the goal is the same: kill the flea and eliminate the contamination from the environment. They are not flea repellents and the fleas do not die instantly. It is common to see live fleas on pets shortly after the application or administration of flea treatment. The fleas simply have not died yet.
Owners often think that one treatment will solve the problem, which is not true. The entire life cycle, from flea to egg to larva to pupa to young flea, can take eight weeks or longer depending on environmental conditions. This is true even for products that include growth inhibitors of the larva. Flea treatments need to continue until the environment is exhausted of new sources of fleas before an infestation is resolved. But owners should not stop treating at that point either. Flea treatment should be continuous because feral dogs, cats, and other wildlife can re-infect the environment.
Some pet owners live in areas where winters are harsh and fleas don’t seem to be a problem. But remember that the house, shed, and barn are less environmentally harsh and can still act as a source of infestation to your pet, especially as the temperatures warm. And the period without apparent fleas is short, so pet owner often forget to re-start flea treatment as winter fades.
Don’t let your pet be a victim of fleanial!
Dr. Ken Tudor
Image: Ermolaev Alexander / Shutterstock