By Steve Dale
Flea season is here! No, this is not a column that should have appeared in April or May. In fact, particularly in northern states, most critters carry more fleas in the fall than in the spring.
As we move into autumn, there's more potential for our pets to pick up these buggers at a time when many owners stop using flea products.
Dr. Michael Dryden, professor of Veterinary Parasitology in the Department of Diagnostic Medicine and Pathobiology at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Manhattan, labels the phenomenon "the fall flea surge."
Dryden has counted fleas on wild animals in the fall, and compared to the number of fleas found on animals in the spring, he discovered a 70 percent hike at exactly this time of the year. The champion was an opossum, who carried 1,009 fleas. (Dryden and his team laboriously picked fleas off sedated wild animals, then tallied them.)
Dryden theorizes that the fall flea surge occurs because there's generally an increase in precipitation (which fleas like), followed by a chain of events which favor fleas. As fleas become more abundant and animals' winter coats grow in, fleas are more difficult to groom off. Because fleas reproduce so efficiently, more fleas beget more fleas.
Dryden says home infestations occurring in the fall may exceed those in spring. While it's possible to bring an errant flea in on our clothing, unprotected pets are most likely to deliver them; often several at a time hitch a free ride. "This is another reminder that cats who go outdoors at all also require protection," Dryden notes.
Most flea eggs are laid on pets, but they may also be laid in carpet, all within 24 hours of a flea finding a cozy resting place. A flea can lay 40 to 50 eggs daily. Eggs not laid in the rug roll off pets and land in the carpet; larvae hatch there within 10 days. After a few days, the flea larvae cocoon transforms into the pupae state for anywhere from about 24-hours to many months. When the time is right, adult fleas appear.
Taking blood meals isn't only "gross," but fleas can also spread diseases, as well as tapeworm.
While fall is peak flea season in northern climates and the mid-central U.S., Dryden says he sees some of the worst infestations in the South in January and February. "I realize this is completely illogical," he admits. "And it's only because people stop using products when fleas are more or less as abundant as in the spring and summer."
In the North, once a few heavy frosts occur, most pets won't be meeting fleas outdoors. However, Dryden still suggests year-round protection. "You might as well, since there's only really December through February that you're safe in the North outdoors. But then our homes don't freeze. Also, people travel south (from the north) with pets, and forget to use products, or even when it warms up in March, they may forget." In the South, year-round use of products is required if you want to be flea-free.
The flea control product of choice may vary, depending on where you live and your pet's lifestyle. "Just don't take a guess at a big box store," implores Dryden, who's even called Dr. Flea by fellow veterinarians. "It's very important to ask your veterinarian about the right product."
Some products may work best for your specific needs. For example, Dryden likes products that kill both fleas and ticks.
Some products are difficult to use, particularly for seniors or people with impaired mobility. "Vectra 3D has the best and easiest to use applicator on the market today," Dryden says.
Several flea products are now being touted as not only killing fleas but also repelling them. Dryden says he'd like to see data to demonstrate that repellency really occurs, and that fleas don't even get close enough to bite. Certainly, products that kill fast are especially effective, Dryden adds. Since not all products are the same, Dryden strongly suggests consulting a veterinarian for guidance.
©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services