By Lisa Klink
How can something so tiny be so annoying? Fleas are less than one-sixth of an inch long, yet they are maddeningly capable of defeating our best efforts to keep them away from our homes and pets. So what’s a human to do? There are a wide variety of flea control options, targeting different stages of a flea’s life cycle. No single product will defeat the little vermin on its own, but a combination of methods can make an effective battle plan.
The best-selling flea control products are made by Frontline. Their medication can be spot applied to a pet’s skin or sprayed on his or her fur. The active ingredient in Frontline is fipronil, an insecticide. Frontline kills both fleas and ticks. Frontline Plus also contains S-methoprene, a growth inhibitor. This treatment, applied once a month, is generally very effective. However, you shouldn’t bathe your pet for two days after application to ensure its absorption into his or her skin. Also, the product can be toxic if ingested by mouth. Parents must prevent children from petting an animal at the application site, then putting their hands in their mouths. Cat owners must be careful that their pets don’t lick the Frontline off each other while grooming.
Another popular flea control medication is Advantage. It contains a pesticide called imidacloprid. Advantage may work more quickly against fleas, but does not kill ticks. Advantage Multi adds moxidectin to control heart and intestinal worms. There’s a similar treatment for dogs only, called K-9 Advantix. It contains imidacloprid, along with permethrin, and kills not only fleas and ticks, but mosquitos. As a bonus, it’s waterproof. Revolution uses the insecticide selamectin as its main weapon. Revolution provides an additional benefit: protection against heartworms. However, it may cause stomach irritation. All of these products are applied on the skin, and all pose the same risks to humans and other pets as Frontline does. Capstar is an oral medication, which contains the pesticide nitenpyram. It kills adult fleas, but is ineffective against ticks.
Program, on the other hand, is not a pesticide. Its active ingredient is S-methoprene, which doesn’t affect adult fleas, but only prevents baby fleas from maturing. It’s nontoxic to people and pets.
Flea collars gradually release insecticide over twelve months. They work better for prevention than treating an active flea infestation. Also, they’re most effective on the front part of the dog or cat, close to the collar itself. Their active ingredients are nontoxic to humans and pets, although some animals find them irritating to the skin. Hartz collars use a pesticide called tetrachorovinphos. Other collars contain a class of chemicals called carbamates. Both types work against fleas and ticks.
Flea shampoo and dips
A flea bath works best as a first step to rid a dog or cat of an active flea infestation. Flea shampoos usually contain yet another type of insecticide called pyrethrin, an organic compound derived from the chrysanthemum plant. Pyrethrin is less toxic than other pesticides, and is rinsed off during the bath, leaving very little residue. As a result, it’s only effective for a day or two after the bath, and should be followed up with other flea control methods. Cats are more sensitive to pyrethrin than dogs, so be especially watchful for signs of toxicity such as drooling, vomiting and tremors.
A flea dip uses a more concentrated solution of the same chemical. It’s more toxic, and not safe for cats or small dogs. For a big dog with a severe infestation, however, a dip is more effective than a bath. There’s more residue left on the fur, and it can remain active for up to three weeks.
Flea powder, sprays and foggers
These products kill fleas anywhere they may be hiding inside the home, especially in carpeting and upholstery. Most contain pyrethrin. Some also contain nylar, a growth inhibitor, to prevent eggs from hatching. Both chemicals are nontoxic to humans and pets.
Yes, there are such things as flea traps. They’re essentially sticky glue strips placed near some bait. Reports of their effectiveness vary widely. They only work on adult fleas.
Ultrasonic repellants and electronic flea collars
A comprehensive study of these devices by veterinarian M.W. Dryden has proven them ineffective. Don’t waste your money.
Some pet owners are uncomfortable with the idea of dosing their pets and homes with chemicals, even the plant-based pyrethrin. Most alternative flea treatments rely on citrus extracts like d-Limonene. Some use linalool, which is derived from plants like rosewood and bergamot. These products certainly smell better than traditional insecticides, but are generally less effective at killing fleas, and their residual effect doesn’t last as long. Also, natural does not equal “safe.” Citrus extracts can be toxic to pets, especially cats.
A good substitute for flea powder is diatomaceous earth, which is actually the ground-up remains of fossilized diatoms. It’s abrasive enough to scratch a flea’s exoskeleton, which eventually causes it to die of dehydration. Sprinkle it on carpet, upholstery, even directly into your pet’s fur. It can be messy, but it’s harmless to humans and pets.
Various dietary supplements have been touted as natural flea fighters. Some owners swear by feeding garlic to their pets. We do not recommend this. Garlic can cause serious digestive problems or anemia. It can also trigger insulin shock in diabetic animals. Other pet owners suggest brewer’s yeast, thiamin, rosemary and various herbs. These methods have not been proven reliable or safe. Always consult your veterinarian before adding any new supplement to your pet’s diet.
Clean, clean, clean
The most natural way to fight fleas is to keep your home and pet as clean as possible. Frequent vacuuming helps get adult fleas out of carpet and upholstery. Just make sure to empty the vacuum canister or used bag into a plastic trash bag, with a dash of flea powder to be on the safe side. Seal the bag and get it out of the house immediately.
Get a washable bed or bed cover for your pet. Wash it often in very hot water to kill fleas and their eggs.
Groom your dog or cat often with a flea comb. Kill any fleas you find – which may be tricky, since they’re incredibly good jumpers. Also, keep your pet’s fur trimmed, especially in the summertime, which is prime flea season. Give your dog more frequent baths in the summer. Your cat probably won’t let you. Since housecats don’t (or shouldn’t) go outside, they pick up fewer fleas anyway.
This information is meant to be a starting point in your war on fleas. Always research any product before putting it on or feeding it to your dog or cat. Talk to your veterinarian, and consider any allergies or medical conditions your pet may have which might make him or her unusually sensitive. Some pets are even allergic to fleas, which makes your flea control efforts even more important. Happy hunting!