By Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell
It can be frustrating to learn your pet has a flea infestation, especially if you thought he or she was safe even without using a flea preventive.
Fleas are found in all 50 U.S. states and on every continent — even Antarctica, where the Glaciopsyllus antarcticus feeds off birds. They hide in dark, damp areas outside, and once on your pet, can leave eggs in carpets and pet beds, which can re-infest a home every 30 days.
Even "indoor pets" can suffer from flea infestations. Sure, your pet may be indoors most of the time, but if Fido or Fluffy slips out, even for a short walk, they could pick up fleas — and then bring them indoors!
Cats that go outside tend to be the carriers in mixed households of dogs and cats, says Keith Niesenbaum, DVM, and veterinarian at Great Neck Dog & Cat Hospital in New York.
Infestation or Allergy?
“Fleas are generally big enough to be seen, so the first thing someone should do is look for fleas on their pet,” says Dr. Niesenbaum.
“If there are no visible signs, you should determine if you have a flea infestation or if your cat or dog has a severe flea allergy.”
There’s a difference, Dr. Niesenbaum says, because if your pet has a flea allergy, one bite might make them itch uncontrollably, which makes it harder to determine if your pet has fleas. It’s similar to when people get mosquito bites.
“A person who isn’t very allergic could get one bite and it doesn’t bother them as much, but if a person who is allergic gets bitten, they tend to scratch and scratch until the bite becomes raw or infected,” he says. This happens with pets that are allergic to fleas. It can only take a couple of flea bites to contribute to significant discomfort for the animal.
Signs of a Flea Infestation
According to Dr. Niesenbaum, one flea or flea bite can turn into a full blown flea infestation. Here are some signs to watch out for, even if you cannot visibly see fleas on your dog or cat:
- Red patches of skin where your dog or cat may be continuously biting, even to the point of pulling out some of its hair.
- Flea “dirt,” aka flea poop, which is typically found on the back near the tail or on the stomach area.
- Infected areas of the skin that your pet scratches or bites at constantly.
During more serious flea infestations, signs might include:
- Evidence of tapeworm, which include small, rice shaped objects in your pet’s feces or around the anus.
- Pale gums, which signals anemia.
Both flea bites and full infestations are dangerous to your pets (and to your family) and your pet should be treated immediately according to your veterinarian’s recommendations.
To eliminate fleas from your home, Niesenbaum no longer recommends the old methods of sprays or bombing a home, which can be toxic to every living thing in your house. Instead, he recommends a combination of two things:
1. Use Flea Preventatives
There are many different flea preventatives to choose from (topical, oral, etc.). Discuss with your veterinarian what would be best for your situation. In order to be most effective, the flea preventive should be used year-round.
2. Protect Your Environment
Use a pet- and environmentally-friendly flea treatment for your yard. Then, keep the inside of your home squeaky clean. Vacuum the carpet (remember, fleas like dark areas behind furniture and under beds), under the sofa, bed, and chair cushions, as well as your pet's beds and blankets regularly. If possible, wash the pet beds and blankets. That way you can be sure to eliminate any fleas that may be hiding in the nooks and crannies.