Learn how to prevent these pesky insects from infesting your family pet.

If you or your pets have ever been affected by fleas and their annoying bites, you already know how difficult achieving relief can be.

Fleas are tiny insects, about one-eighth an inch in length, and are incredibly annoying to both people and their pets. Fleas can also carry serious diseases, as they are blood-sucking insects that may bite more than once. Signs of an infestation range from an occasional itch to severe flea bite dermatitis, complete with hair loss and open sores. Although troublesome, there are ways to prevent and treat flea bites.

Control of the problem requires an understanding of the flea life cycle, as different products work on different stages of the cycle. First adult fleas are found on the animal. Eggs are then laid and dropped into the animal’s environment. The eggs eventually hatch into larvae, which then go through a series of molts to become pupae and spin a cocoon. When the larvae emerge from the cocoon as an adult flea, they are capable of jumping up to a foot high to get on your pet, and then the cycle starts all over again. It is important to remember that cocoons can remain dormant for up to a year.

Treatment requires a product to kill the adults, as well as a product to break the life cycle. The cycle can be broken by either killing the eggs, preventing them from hatching or by killing the larvae. No one product does all three. In order to be effective, all animals in the household or environment must be treated; even the cat that is not showing any signs can be a source of new fleas and eggs. Another undervalued, yet effective, method is thorough vacuuming of an affected area, which rids the environment of the pupa and unhatched eggs. Just be sure to empty the vacuum bag after doing so.

It’s important to remember that using more than one product on your pet and/or the environment may increase the actual dosage. This is particularly true of organophosphates and permethrins, which are widely used insecticides. Knowing exactly what is in the products can help avoid overexposure and ensure that the treatment itself isn’t more harmful than the fleas. Some of the newer products aimed at growth regulation can kill the adults and the eggs at very low toxicity.

It can be extremely difficult and expensive to eradicate fleas from an environment once they are well established, so prevention is a much easier and cheaper approach. If possible, work with your veterinarian to determine what is best for your pet and situation in advance of flea season, when the weather is hot and dry.

Barry N. Kellogg, VMD, is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine. He spent 23 years in private practice and, in 1989, left to
 serve as Chairman of the Medicine Department and Head of
 the Intern Program at Rowley Memorial Animal Hospital in Massachusetts. Dr. Kellogg currently serves as Senior Veterinary Advisor for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, The Humane Society International and The Humane Society of the United States.