Flea Prevention and Treatment for Cats and Dogs

by Barbara Murray
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The majority of dogs spend some time outdoors and many pet owners have cats that come and go from indoors to outdoors frequently. If our pets spend any time at all outdoors, flea prevention is something we need to constantly work at on a regular basis. The markets are flooded with products for prevention, infestation after the fact and treatment of both pets and yard areas. What works best for one pet owner may not be feasible for the next. I think the trick is to experiment a bit until we each find what works specifically for our pets in our unique environment.

It should also be noted that the best flea prevention starts with a healthy pet. Healthy pets are less likely to have fleas to begin with.

Year-round Vigilance

In Kentucky, where I live, fleas have a hard time surviving our erratic winters. Thus, some pet owners, I know I'm guilty, tend to rest on their laurels when it comes to flea prevention year round. We tend to associate fleas with summertime and yes, typically fleas are more numerous during the summer months in my area. However, we need to remain aware that wintertime flea prevention is just as important, albeit not nearly as difficult, at least where I live. Rarely will you see a flea during a Kentucky winter.

Illness and Disease

Fleas harbor and transmit disease-carrying organisms that can be transmitted from pets to humans and to other pets. As some of you probably remember, in New Mexico in April 2017, a feral cat died of the plague, a disease closely linked to flea infestation. In August 2017, Navajo County, Arizona was reporting multiple cases of plague in dogs there. Plague, once a death sentence, can now be treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early enough. However, feral cat populations and pets with inattentive humans are at great risk of contracting a deadly virus from fleas.

Dog with a sad expression lying downSome animals, especially dogs develop an allergic reaction to flea bites. This results in even more misery for the bitten animal.

In addition, these pests carry and spread flea-borne typhus, which can be transmitted to humans through a bite. Yet an even more common problem caused by fleas is the transmission of dog tapeworms. Dogs, cats and humans can all be infected with this intestinal parasite through the bite of a host flea.

So how do you know if your pet has fleas?

Symptoms of Flea Bites in Pets

One of the most obvious symptoms that your pet has fleas is constant scratching. One flea bite can cause your pet to scratch, bite at his or her skin and be agitated for several days. If left untreated, the animal can suffer serious illness.

Other symptoms and clues that your pet may have fleas include hair loss, sores and scabs, and dermatitis manifested as redness or blistering of the skin. Look for red inflamed bumps on the skin. Inspect your pet's fur for flea droppings which may look like dirt in your pet's coat. These droppings look like ground black pepper or sand grains. Also, check for flea eggs in the animal's fur and in areas where your pet spends time sleeping, like bedding and crate areas if applicable. Pale gums are another sign of flea infestation. Unfortunately, tapeworms are also a sign of fleas.

Treatment with Pesticides

It's important to remember that pesticides for outdoor areas can be quite harmful to pets. Furthermore, if you need to treat carpets or indoor furniture, be sure your pets are barred from the area until the pesticides dry completely. Close doors, put up gates, whatever is necessary to keep them from entering rooms that you're treating.

It's important to follow the directions on the label exactly to maximize the benefits of pesticides. Failure to use as directed may result in little to no difference of the flea population. For products you must administer orally to your pet, know your pet's weight beforehand. Don't guess. And be sure to give proper dosages exactly as directed.

In addition, flea collars and medications manufactured specifically for dogs should not be used on cats and vice versa. Some products made for dogs can poison cats simply by being near a treated dog. If you have concerns about the chemicals in the products, be sure and discuss it with your veterinarian before use.

Prevention without All the Chemicals

Research has shown that some natural remedies do help with flea control. For example, keeping the grass trimmed goes a long way in keeping fleas out of the yard to begin with. Plants that contain natural oil that wards off fleas include basil, lemon balm, lemongrass, mint, rosemary and sage. Planting these around walk areas, entry doors and throughout the dog's play yard can help keep fleas from taking up residence in the area.

Keeping fleas out of the home starts with regular and frequent vacuuming in all areas your pets have access to. Carpets are highly susceptible to becoming hiding spots for fleas and in addition to the vacuuming, regular steam cleaning of carpets is a must if you find a flea inside. Remember fleas rarely leave their host. So, if you see one, that typically means it has lots of friends nearby.

Natural remedy advocates recommend spraying your dog weekly with a mixture of apple cider vinegar in warm water. Two parts vinegar to three parts water, sprayed on the dog's coat, everywhere except around the eyes, is thought to make the coat acidic enough to ward off fleas. I've never tried this but I'm curious now after researching natural remedies how well it works.

A regular bath in mild soap or shampoo will drown most adult fleas. Combing your pet's coat with a special flea comb also helps rid the animal of adult fleas. If you do this over the pet's bathtub and make sure any live fleas fall into water, the pests will drown. This works especially well for cats as bathing a cat is not always an easy chore, if you know what I mean.

Remember if you treat your pet, like by dipping in a flea bath or using a collar, this does nothing to kill the fleas that your pet may have carried into your home. Therefore, when you spot a flea, it's important to treat your pet, your house and your yard on the same day.

TIP: How to Make Your Own Flea Collars

If you would like to make your own flea collar with natural ingredients, Readers' Digest published step-by-step instructions on how to make a flea collar using either an ordinary store-bought collar or one you construct yourself. You then dip the collar in various natural ingredients such as cedarwood essential oil mixed in unflavored vodka or something similar, for example. This supposedly prevents and/or kills fleas.

Additional References:
CDC: Prevention | Plague
Fayette County Cooperative Extension Service - University of Kentucky: By The Yard
Mother Nature Network: 7 Natural Flea Remedies for Cats and Dogs
NPIC (Oregon State University): Fleas
PetMD: Fleas Test Positive for Plague in Arizona: What It Means
University of Kentucky Entomology: Smarter Flea Control
University of Tennessee Extension Service: Chemical and Nonchemical Management of Fleas