Fleas are the most common external parasites for dogs and cats. A single flea can bite a pet over 400 times in one day, and can transmit tapeworms to dogs and cats. They can also cause allergic skin reactions that result in compulsive scratching by pets and lead to severe skin infections. Ticks can transmit several diseases to pets, including Lyme disease which is also transmissible to humans.
The most important thing to realize is how rapidly fleas multiply. A female flea lays between three and 50 eggs a day, and has a "breeding" life of about 100 days. That means a female flea might lay as few as 300 eggs or as many as 5,000 eggs in her life. Studies show this is the reason a flea infestation in a house or yard can be difficult to eradicate, because all it takes is a few fleas to perpetuate an overwhelming flea problem.
There are several safe and effective flea control measures you can institute. First there is a medication called "Program" that will prevent fleas from reproducing. Once a flea bites a dog or cat taking this medication, the flea's ability to reproduce is destroyed.
What about the fleas that a pet already has? They may be sterilized and unable to reproduce, but that won't make Fluffy feel any better today. In addition to preventing those fleas from laying viable eggs, another medication is needed to kill the fleas after they have been sterilized. This medication is called "Capstar." It is a tablet that can be given orally that kills fleas within 30 minutes. While this medication kills the fleas quickly, it does nothing to prevent fleas that may be taking a brief vacation from your pet from hopping back on tomorrow and biting. Therefore, this medication is usually given for several days in a row.
The key thing to understand is that the above approach kills the adult fleas, and any fleas that get a bite in and lay a few eggs before dying will not leave behind a next generation of fleas. Tackling the problem at both of these levels is fundamental in eradicating a flea infestation.
There is also a topically-applied medication called "Frontline Plus," which is two different medications to help eliminate fleas - one that kills adult fleas as they wander through a pet's fur, and one that prevents any eggs from hatching that are laid before the flea dies. "Frontline Plus" is squirted onto a single place on the back of a pet's neck. From there it spreads over the skin and is stored in the many thousands of microscopic grease glands in the skin, making it resistant to being washed off by a bath. For cats one treatment lasts a month and for dogs it lasts up to three months. Again, this singular approach tackles the problem at both levels.
Either approach is very effective and, in uncommon cases where the flea problem is really overwhelming, all of the above can be done concurrently.
Finally, for tackling ticks. Ticks are capable of spreading several diseases to pets and people and are more of a year-round pet threat. The only treatment mentioned above that also kills ticks is "Frontline Plus." A product called "Advantix," which is applied topically, also kills fleas and ticks but it does not prevent flea eggs from hatching.
Being proactive about preventing flea and tick problems is easy to do and can prevent more serious problems later. Check with your veterinarian to decide which approach is best for your pets, so when they venture forth this spring, the only unwelcome addition they bring back to your home is mud.
--Dr. Franklin Utchen, shown with his dog Tory, has been practicing veterinary medicine in the San Ramon Valley since 1989 and currently co-owns Bishop Ranch Veterinary Center & Urgent Care. For questions or comments, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.