Flea Borne Disease Awareness & Prevention in Canines & Felines

Now that you’ve read about one type of blood sucking arthropod in Tick Borne Disease Awareness and Prevention, let’s move to another source of irritation and potential infection to pet and their owners… fleas.

Flea Friendly Environments

Like with ticks, fleas need the correct combination of warm weather and humidity to thrive and reproduce.  In many parts of the country, frigid temperatures kill adult fleas and their eggs, pupae, and larvae (the three stages of flea life leading to adulthood) so pets are generally at lower risk to incur flea infestations during winter.  Yet, fleas can live inside and the balmy temperature at which some people keep their homes can perpetuate the threat in colder months.  Additionally, parts of the country that are continually warm create a year-round presence for fleas.

Fleas can take up residence on our pets or live on stray animals and wildlife (squirrels, possums, rodents, etc.), so urban, suburban, and rural locations can harbor the blood-thirsty pests.  Since dogs generally lead partially outdoor lives for socialization and exercise they are more-prone to flea infestation than 100% indoor cats.  Even pets that never leave their homes could pick up fleas from a neighbor’s dog, an indoor-outdoor feline, or the occasional close proximity of wildlife.

Whereas ticks require an animal to brush by the blade of grass or leaf where they reside or latch onto fur when the animal is lying down, fleas are capable of jumping onto their host.  Fleas’ upward mobility is one reason why they are an ectoparasite (ecto= on the outside) that infests our pets more commonly than ticks.

Fleas lay eggs on our pets which then fall off into our environment where they mature into adults and can carry on the potential for infestation in our homes and yards.

Clinical Signs of Fleas

Just because your pet is scratching, chewing, or licking doesn’t necessarily mean he has fleas.  As the skin is the body’s largest organ, many factors can cause itching including seasonal and non-seasonal environmental and food allergies, infections (bacteria, yeast, mites, etc.), and more.  Yet, scratching, chewing, or licking and other clinical signs (altered sleep patterns, lethargy, decreased appetite, etc.) can mean that fleas are or have recently been present.

Common clinical signs of flea infestation include:

  • Scratching around the head, ears, neck, or armpits and licking or chewing around the tail base, groin or elsewhere. Flea saliva is very allergenic, so your pet may only get bit by one flea but have a significant inflammatory response and start scratching, licking, or chewing at the bite site or other locations on his body.
  • The presence of flea feces (“flea dirt”) on the skin surface. As fleas consume blood, their feces also contain digested blood which looks like black pepper clumps stuck to skin or attached to hair.  When the flea feces are moistened, they dissolve and leave an orange-pink tinged liquid.  If you suspect your pet has flea feces my recommendation is to attempt to confirm the suspicion by dabbing a water-moistened, white tissue to the affected area to see if the flea feces dissolves and tissue turns orange to pink.
  • Tapeworm body segments on your pet’s feces or anus. This finding is extremely unsettling to most pet owners.  See Diseases Carried by Fleas section below.

If any of the above clinical signs are present, please bring the issues to the attention of your veterinarian.

Diseases Carried by Fleas

Fleas are parasites that also have the ability to transmit other parasites and bacteria, including:

Tapeworm is the most commonly diagnosed parasite associated with fleas.  When your pet has a flea infestation and chews himself in order to relieve some of the flea saliva-induced skin inflammation, he may inadvertently consume the flea.  If tapeworm larvae happens to exist inside the flea, then his intestines may serve as host for this long, fragile, blood-sucking parasite.  Typically, two to three weeks after consuming the tapeworm-harboring flea your pet will start to shed egg-containing body segments called proglottids that look like tan, squirming, pieces of rice.  Fortunately, tapeworm treatment is fairly straightforward and requires veterinary prescribed anti-parasitic medication and ongoing flea control to prevent re-infestation.

Fleas can carry bacteria like Bartonella, which causes Cat Scratch Disease.  When fleas take their blood meal, they can excrete Bartonella in their feces that ends up on the skin or under the nails of an infected pet.  The scratch of an infected cat or dog is the most-common means Bartonella transmits into people at the time of skin trauma (scratch).  Bartonella can also be found in pet saliva, so bite wounds are another means of transmission among pets and from pets to people.

Another type of bacteria, Rickettsia, are the cause of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) that can be transmitted both by fleas and ticks.  Rickettsia causes flu-like symptoms, including lethargy, mobility problems, muscle soreness, fever, decreased appetite, and others.

Flea Prevention and Treatment

My top recommendation is to prevent fleas instead dealing with them after your pet is suffering from an infestation.  Common means of minimizing your pet’s potential exposure include:

  • Avoiding locations where other animals and fleas congregate

Avoidance is my top pet flea-prevention tip, as it simply involves a lifestyle change, has no potential toxic effects, and is free!  Dog parks, daycare facilities, wooded areas, and grassy fields are high-risk locations due to the close proximity between wildlife and domestic animals that harbor blood-sucking ectoparasites.  Walk your dog on the sidewalk and engage in small group play or daycare to minimized exposure to flea-dense spots.

  • Environmental Decontamination

Making your home and yard environments flea-unfriendly is another of my top recommendations that can be done in a safe, non-toxic, and low-cost manner.  Vacuum household rugs and upholstery (and dispose the bag or canister away from your home in a sealed container) and wash all human and pet bedding at least every seven days.

I’ve found success in engaging the services of companies like Fleabusters that take a natural approach to household and yard flea prevention.  As an alternative to using chemical pesticides in the home and yard, non-toxic treatments like boric acid distributed along baseboards and sodium chloride sprayed onto carpets and upholstery dry out and damage flea eggs, larvae, and pupae.  Additionally, nematodes are tiny, non-pet-infectious worms that are dispersed in the yard that eat flea eggs, larvae, and pupae.

  • Topical and oral treatments

Most commercially-available, over-the-counter and veterinary-prescribed products are neurotoxic chemical insecticides that target specific nervous receptors which adult fleas, ticks, and other insects have in greater quantity than mammals like cats, dogs, and people.  As a result, the insect is paralyzed and killed by the insecticide, but the mammal on which the product was applied is not similarly affected.

Other products include insect growth regulators (IGR), which deter the normal maturation of flea eggs into larvae.  Flea eggs are typically resistant to adulticides, so IGRs fit the bill in disrupting the life cycle before maturation occurs.

Although insecticide treatments are generally safe and effective and can be long-lasting, some owners prefer to take a non-chemical approach to their pet’s flea treatment and prevention. Natural products lack chemical pesticides and are favored by owners not wanting to their pets to consume neurotoxins or IGRs.  Many contain plant-based oils called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that may deter fleas from taking up residence on a pet or in the home environment but don’t necessarily kill fleas.  As both cats and dogs can be sensitive to VOCs, it’s crucial to use them only under the guidance of your veterinarian.

There are many formats in which flea preventatives are manufactured, including oral (given by mouth), topical (applied to the skin, including shampoos, sprays), collars, and more, so choosing the products for your pet can be complicated.  Some products just prevent flea infestations, while others handle ticks, heartworm, intestinal parasites, and more.  Consult with your veterinarian to help avoid the potential for adverse consequences and ensure the products that best suit your pet’s needs are selected.

  • Grooming

Regular and thorough grooming practices can help keep fleas off of your pet.  A flea comb permits owners to navigate their pets’ coats and skin surface for fleas and remove them before bites occur.  Pet-appropriate shampoos wash off fleas and flush allergenic flea saliva off of the skin.  Flea and tick shampoos kill fleas but generally don’t have a residual effect, so I don’t recommend their use unless an active infestation is present and the pet isn’t weakened or debilitated by illness (as sick pets can be more prone to side effects of chemical pesticides).  Create a schedule of regular combing and bathing that you can stick with or arrange for a groomer to come at intervals that keep fleas at bay and work within your budget.

Preventing fleas and the diseases they carry can be a challenging, trial-and-error process that lasts year-round.  Partner with your veterinarian to establish a plan that best suits your pet’s needs.

What’s the flea prevention strategy you take for your pet?  Feel free to leave your perspective in the comments section.

Meet the Author: Patrick Mahaney

Dr. Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, CVJ is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a concierge house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. Additionally, Dr. Mahaney offers holistic treatment for canine and feline cancer patients at the Veterinary Cancer Group (Culver City, CA).

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