An Itchy Situation

Recently, my daughter pointed out that our cat has flea droppings (poop) in his fur. I confess I blew her off. Except for the occasional jailbreak, our cats are indoor-only. Sure, I probably occasionally bring a hitchhiker or three home in my work clothes, and yeah, he had been itchier lately, but he has long-standing allergies so that’s nothing new. When I finally took the time to investigate, I realized to my chagrin that she was right! I promptly remedied the situation, and all the cats are happy and flea-free now.

I tell you this to point out that having fleas does not mean you are dirty or a negligent pet owner. They can happen to anyone, even a veterinarian, and it’s usually not a big deal to take care of them. Don’t be ashamed! Let’s talk about how to detect fleas in and around your pets, and bust a few common myths and misunderstandings while we’re at it.

How to find fleas

Fleas are sneaky little creatures. The adults spend very little time on the pet – just long enough to feed and lay a few eggs, which drop quickly to the ground. Therefore, you’re unlikely to find fleas actually on your pet unless your timing is really lucky!

The pros rely on a simple, low-tech method using a flea comb, which you can find for just a few dollars in any pet store:

  1. Run the fine-toothed side of a flea comb through your pet’s fur – just in front of the base of the tail is reliable and tolerable to most dogs and cats. Run the comb parallel to the body and in the same direction as the fur, getting as close to the skin as you can, several times.
  2. Examine the comb. You will probably find lightly colored dander and loose fur. If you see dark brown specks that look like dirt, it could be flea droppings.
  3. Verify flea droppings. Tap the debris onto a white surface and add enough water to moisten the debris. (I used a paper towel in the video, but it will show better on computer paper). Rub gently, smearing the dissolved bits across the surface. Flea droppings are – brace yourself for this revelation – digested blood, so they will stain the paper a rusty brown-red color.

Flea facts and tips

Fleas don’t mean a filthy home. “But my house is clean!” you say. So is mine! Well, mostly. Fleas have simple needs: a host animal (many species of pets, but thankfully, not humans) and a place such as upholstery, carpeting, linens, or earth, in which the eggs can develop into adults. Frequent vacuuming may help reduce the number of flea eggs in the environment but is unlikely to solve the problem on its own.

Fleas are usually pretty easy to treat. The most common flea species in the U.S. and Europe are the dog flea and the cat flea, which can use a variety of wild and domesticated animals as a host. Although humans may be bitten, the fleas cannot get the nutrition they need from us. Often, simply treating all potential host animals in the household for at least 4-6 weeks will take care of the problem. Consult with your veterinarian about treating pets other than dogs and cats.

Treating the environment isn’t always necessary, but can help speed elimination of the pests. Products containing insect growth regulator or those which specifically target eggs and larvae are most effective. There are also natural products, such as diatomaceous earth (DE), which desiccate and kill larvae (caution: don’t use DE directly on any animal). Learn more about treating the environment here and be sure to follow all safety precautions on the product label.

Not all flea control products are created equal. Some products that are perfectly safe for dogs can be fatally toxic to cats. Some over-the-counter products are better than others, and unfortunately, this is one place where you get what you pay for. Even if you use an over-the-counter product or natural remedy, consult your veterinarian for recommendations. Resistance to certain chemicals has emerged among flea populations in specific areas, and your vet will know what works best where you live. They are also familiar with your pet and their specific medical needs.

Indoor pets can get fleas. It only takes a few fleas to find their way inside the home environment and get established. In temperate regions, a good, hard frost will kill fleas outside. In warmer regions, we don’t have that luxury – to adapt a popular phrase, our fleas are lucky they live Hawaii.

Pets with fleas aren’t always itchy. This depends on how sensitive they are to the flea saliva when bitten. Some can be heavily infested and will have nary a scratch (any skin changes you see are usually the result of self-trauma), while others get bitten once and have a full-on allergic reaction. Remember, ALL potential hosts need to be treated with flea preventative for a period covering at least 4-6 weeks to catch any remaining emerging adults.

In conclusion

  • You’re unlikely to find evidence of fleas unless you go looking for them.
  • There’s no shame in having fleas in your home, but it is important to treat them once detected.
  • Most flea infestations are straightforward to treat.

Hopefully, this information arms you with the knowledge to keep your animal companion comfortable and flea-free. For more specific recommendations, be sure to talk to your veterinarian.

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