by Jan Lovell - Georgia Ferret Association
As pet owners, almost all of us will face the problem of how to control and eliminate fleas, both on our pets and in the environment. By knowing your enemy's strengths and weaknesses you have a greatly improved chance of winning the battle and possibly even the war. What I have tried to do is collect some flea facts and figures and what I have found out is very interesting.I hope this gives you some insight into what you're up against and how to deal with it.
There are 2,100 species of fleas, and of those species 99+% of the fleas in our area (north Georgia) are cat fleas. The fleas' life-cycle is strongly dependent on temperature and humidity. Ideal temperature is 70-75 degrees with relative humidity ranging from 65-75%. This, to a certain extent, explains why we see fewer fleas in the winter months (central heating produces dry air), and in mid-summer during hot, dry weather. These types of conditions slow the overall life-cycle of fleas, but doesn't eliminate them.
Adult fleas spend most of their lives on our pets feeding on their blood and reproducing. The eggs, which are laid on our pets, roll off into the environment. Flea eggs take anywhere from 2-12 days to hatch into tiny larvae. These larvae then migrate to dark areas of the environment such as around baseboards, under furniture, and any other dark nook and cranny they can find. The larvae feed on bits of organic debris (flea egg shells, bits of shed skin), and molt several times as they grow. This can take anywhere from 9-200 days! Once they're done growing they spin a cocoon (much like a butterfly or moth), and can remain in this state from 12-300 days. At this point they are considered pre-emergent, meaning they are fully-formed adult fleas waiting for the right stimuli such as foot steps or other vibrations to emerge and start their hunt for their first meal. This explains why lots of pet owners encounter a major flea attack upon returning home after an extended absence. With no stimuli the pre-emergent fleas are playing the "waiting game." Those first footsteps are the signal to the fleas to "explode" from their cocoons and attack the first warm body they encounter. Interestingly enough, if a newly emerged flea doesn't feed within the first 48 hours it will die. Assuming that the pet doesn't eat the flea when grooming itself, adult fleas can live from 2 days to several months happily having little flea-orgies and producing lots more eggs which will end up in the environment, and so the cycle continues. It has been suggested that for every 1 flea you find on your pet, there are at least 100 more (in various stages of development) in the environment.
An adult flea can jump vertically as high as 3 feet and cruises along through our pet's hair at ~8 miles per hour. One study indicates that fleas have color preferences with red being their first choice followed closely by white. Fleas have poor eyesight and respond to changes in light, and since light reflects better off lighter colored objects, this probably explains why our light colored pets seem to be "flea magnets". And, fleas don't do well at 1,500 feet or more above sea level.
Now that we know how a flea "works" we can plan the attack. This can be very time-consuming, but is worth it in order to get relief for us and our pets.
The first step is to make arrangements to take your dogs, cats, & ferrets to the vet or grooming shop for a good scrubbing, but please DON'T have the ferrets dipped. Birds, reptiles, and other small pets can be boarded for the day, or if the weather is nice, they can spend some time out on the porch. Check them frequently while you're inside to be sure they're still in the shade and not getting overheated or being teased or threatened by the neighbor's kids or pets.
The next step is a thorough vacuuming. This means every square millimeter of floor space (wood, tile, linoleum, and carpet) in the house or apartment. Don't forget closets, bathrooms, utility rooms, and under the couch and chair cushions. Vacuum under any furniture - wherever the vacuum will reach. Use those little crevice tools to clean thoroughly around the edges of the room and the edges of heavy furniture that can't be moved. Wash all of your pets' bedding as well as your own bedding if your pets sleep with you. Concentrate on those areas where your pet spends a lot of time. You're trying to get as many of the eggs, larvae, and pupae as you can. When you're done you should throw away the vacuum cleaner bag - not store it, still in the vacuum, in the hall closet. The flea larvae will be perfectly happy in a nice dark environment munching away on all the organic stuff you just cleaned up! It's often suggested that you put a piece of a flea collar or mothballs in the bag before you start - but why take the chance on a re-infestation when vacuum cleaner bags are cheap? Simply toss the used one and put in a new one for next time. Besides, I don't know about you, but the smell of warm flea collars or mothballs doesn't do much for me.
The next step is optional. If it happens to be the time of year when you would have the carpets steam-cleaned, this is the perfect time to do it. You will not only have clean carpets but you get the added bonus of picking up more of the eggs, larvae, and pupae that the vacuum missed.
Now you can work on applying a flea killing product to the environment. There are lots of choices out there. If it's within your budget, and/or if the flea infestation is heavy, it's probably best to have the area professionally treated. If you choose to treat the environment yourself please follow the label directions carefully. Look for a product with an adulticide (something to kill the adults), as well as an ingredient that will inhibit the development of the flea larvae. You can use just a spray but foggers should be used in conjunction with a compatible spray. Spray the hard-to-reach areas under furniture, in closets, etc. first. Then set off the foggers and leave the area for the appropriate time. The drawback to foggers is that they're messy - you will have to clean all exposed surfaces when you return and airing out the house or apartment is an è important step. Sprays give you better control of application (you can aim a spray - foggers don't give you that luxury), and if you get a small pressure sprayer and transfer the chemical into it, the job will be over before you know it. Try to pick a day when the humidity is relatively low so the spray will dry quickly. Some pet owners elect to board their pets overnight with their vet or a pet-sitter after using foggers and/or sprays in order to avoid possible exposure to toxic fumes.
Personally, I prefer to use one of the non-toxic powders. They don't kill fleas quickly as other products do, but they're much safer. I've used the Fleabusters Powder with excellent results (and they guarantee it for a year provided the carpets aren't steam-cleaned), although there are others out there that work essentially the same way. These powdered treatments cause the flea larvae to dehydrate and may take several weeks or more to really have an impact. If this is the chosen method then you'll need something to use directly on the pets.
WHAT IS SAFE AND EFFECTIVE TO USE ON MY PETS?
I intentionally left this for last. Many pets owners get a false sense of security about fleas after using some type of flea-killing product on their pets and then they no longer see fleas. This is especially true when the flea problem is still a minor one. As already illustrated, the other stages of the flea life-cycle are something to be taken seriously. "Out of sight, out of mind" is not a good approach to take when dealing with a flea infestation. That being said, we can now explore the options for killing fleas on our pets.
There are several new, extremely effective, and safe products on the market. Program came out ~2 years ago. It's given orally once a month and affects the development of flea eggs - it DOES NOT kill adult fleas. Unfortunately, the flea has to bite the pet in order to ingest some of the chemical and if your pet has flea-bite allergies this will continue.
Earlier this year 2 new products were introduced - Advantage, which is manufactured by Bayer (the aspirin people), and Frontline, which is manufactured by Rhone Merieux (the Imrab-3 people) . These products DO kill adult fleas. Advantage is packaged in small plastic vials (4 to a package). One application will last a month unless harsh shampoos are used on the pet in between applications. It comes in various sizes and the smaller cat dose is suggested for use on ferrets - on small ferrets 1 vial can be divided between 2 ferrets. Frontline is a spray (it comes in 2 sizes), that will last up to 3 months with one application. Label directions must be followed carefully - the pet owner is directed to spray the pet based on body weight - so many spritzes per pound. Rhone Merieux has also been working on a once-a-month product similar in application to Advantage, and this is expected to be available soon, if not already. Some people initially find these products to be somewhat expensive when compared to the traditional methods of flea control, but with these products the flea doesn't have to bite the pet in order for them to be effective, so those pets who suffer from flea-bite allergies will certainly find relief from itchy skin and their owners will save on repeated trips to the vet for treatment.
A WORD OF WARNING: Neither one of these products has been tested on or approved for use in ferrets - your vet may require you to sign a waiver before dispensing it for your ferrets. Come to think of it, very few products have been specifically approved for use on ferrets. Generally speaking, it's safe to use those products that are labeled safe for cats & kittens. If your ferret exhibits any odd symptoms after applying any type of powder, spray, etc., immediately wash it off and call your vet for further instructions.
Now that you've done everything thoroughly and properly, how do you keep the fleas from coming back? Vacuuming at least once a week will help to keep the flea population way down. If your pets go outside, be prepared to treat your yard in addition to treating the pets and the house. Fleas are opportunistic little beasts and will hitch a ride on just about any warm-blooded mammal that comes along - including you! Don't let your guard down for a moment! If you acquire a new pet be sure he or she isn't bringing in any new fleas. Does your dog go on trips with you in the car? Treat the car, too. Several years ago a ferret was brought to me at work to be placed for adoption. The owner brought all of her supplies and toys with her, some of which were carpeted. I immediately noticed some fleas on her. At the time I was concerned with getting her cleaned up and didn't give her accessories a second thought. The non-essential items were left in the truck. Apparently there were some pre-emergent fleas in the carpeted items because about 10 days later I was attacked by tiny fleas. A good spraying with some flea spray solved the problem. Fortunately, they were newly emerged fleas who hadn't grown enough to start reproducing yet, so one treatment was sufficient.
The hard part is doing all the initial work to make your environment inhospitable to the fleas. Once all that is done it's easy to stay on top of the situation.
A sincere thank you goes to Charles Baylis, President of Fleabusters/Rx for Fleas, who spent over an hour on the phone with me (after hours, no less), for providing the facts and figures which were provided at the beginning of this article.