By Marcia Anderson
I never had a problem with fleas in the suburbs. But after a few months of living in a city apartment, the little pests plagued both myself and my dog with a vengeance. Why? What was the difference?
Outdoors in the suburbs, flea prevention was always the key. This generally involved eliminating the habitat in the yard where fleas were most likely to occur. I made my yard unwelcoming to fleas and ticks by keeping the lawn mowed, shrubs trimmed, and leaves raked. Wild animals such as opossums, raccoons, and small rodents can carry fleas so we tried to discourage all animals from entering our yard. We fenced the yard to keep other dogs out, and kept garbage covered so it wouldn’t attract rodents or other pests.
Inside both my home and apartment, we vacuumed carpets often, mopped bare floors weekly and washed the dog bed regularly.
When I moved to the city, I found only a few nearby places to walk the dog before I headed for work. Although I still kept my home clean, I was no longer able to control the outside areas where my dog was allowed to go. Being accustomed to going under trees and shrubs, our dog visited the same places visited by hundreds of other dogs. Fleas tended to like those places also because they were moist, warm, shady, and there was organic debris. Although fleas cannot fly, they do have powerful back legs and can jump great distances. I soon found out that what jumps off one dog eventually jumped onto our dog.
I was faced with having to come up with a new plan for controlling these fleas. I ruled out flea collars because my dog regularly comes into close contact with the neighbor’s little girls. Sometimes they dog sit, which leads to hugging, brushing, and sleeping together.
Next, I considered flea shampoos. Every weekend our dog would get a bath. The flea shampoos worked well and killed about 95% of the fleas and made her fur ever-so-soft for my neighbor’s little girls. However, I soon realized that the shampoos don’t work to prevent new fleas. The city fleas were just too persistent and hardy.
Embarrassed, I discussed the issue with other city apartment dog owners, whom, I found, had the same problem. I requested that the landlord treat my apartment with an insect growth regulator, a type of pesticide that prevents the flea eggs and larvae from growing and hatching. Because they mimic insect hormones, it would only affect the fleas. This leads to a steady drop in the number of new fleas indoors. However, mature fleas are not affected so it can take 30 to 60 days for the adult fleas to die of old age before you’ll notice the dog scratching less.
What else could I do? There is a lot of talk about an integrated pest management (IPM) approach to other pest problems. What is IPM? An approach to pest control that creates a safer and healthier environment by reducing exposure to pests and pesticides. An effective IPM program uses common sense strategies to reduce sources of food, water, and shelter for pests in buildings and grounds. But will it work for fleas?
I realized that I already was using an IPM approach for my flea problem. Sanitation and maintenance first, including cleaning, combing, bathing, outdoor barriers, followed by least toxic means, such as the insect growth regulator. But because I was unable to fully control the problem I knew that the judicious use of another pesticide was next step. So off we went to the vet.
I found that my dog had ordinary cat fleas, the leading cause of itching in dogs and cats. Itching was most pronounced on her back, groin, tail, and hindquarters. This is where we found black, pepper-like grains in her coat. These were flea feces made up of digested blood. Now we only found a few fleas because they moved so rapidly through her hair and were difficult to catch.
We settled a monthly application of a topical product that not only controls fleas by direct contact, but also protects against heartworms and other worms. Fleas don’t have to bite the dog for the pesticide to work. Like other topical treatments, it came in a tube and was applied to the dog’s back.
Are topical flea treatments safe? Yes, if they are used correctly. The EPA says that using the wrong dosage or product is a major cause of negative reactions. Common mistakes include treating a cat with a product meant for dogs, or using a large dog dose on a small dog. Check with your vet first. More is not always better, more can be dangerous.
Keep in mind that you will probably still see some fleas, even on a treated pet, until all of the fleas in your home have died. Persistence is the key. Keep following your flea control program to get rid of all life stages of the fleas, which may take up to six months.
Prevention is the best method of flea control. After prevention, the other IPM steps may ultimately lead you to use an EPA-registered insecticide products to help keep those pesky fleas away.
About the Author: Marcia is with EPA’s Center of Expertise for School IPM in Dallas, Texas. She holds a PhD in Environmental Management from Montclair State University along with degrees in Biology, Environmental Design, Landscape Architecture, and Instruction and Curriculum. Marcia was formerly with the EPA Region 2 Pesticides Program and has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology, and Oceanography at several universities.