Pet Connection: Get a jump on flea season

If it’s not already flea season where you live, it soon will be. Unless you live at an altitude above 5,000 feet or in an area with low humidity and hot, dry temperatures, you’ll have to deal with fleas on your dog or cat.

Your veterinarian likely has already recommended a good flea-control program, but if you haven’t started it yet, now is the time, before the tiny yet vicious vampires send your dog or cat into a frenzy of scratching and biting.

Fleas are wingless insects that feed on blood. When a flea’s saliva is injected into a pet’s skin, the substances it contains cause severe itching. A pet with flea allergy dermatitis is not just itchy; his skin can be red or crusty, he may have bare patches where he has bitten or scratched himself raw; and his skin may smell bad. Even worse, fleas spread disease.

They transmit tapeworms to animals, who can then pass them on to humans, usually children. They are also carriers of bubonic plague. Think that’s a medieval disease? It’s extremely rare, but it does exist today, and it’s carried by fleas. Just because you don’t see fleas doesn’t mean they’re not there. In fact, fleas spend most of their time in the environment, not on your animal. But even if you don’t see fleas on your pet, one dead giveaway is flea dirt – small black specks you may notice as you groom your dog or cat.

The good news is that flea control is way easier now than it was in the past. It wasn’t that long ago that pet owners spent hours flea-combing, spraying, dipping and powdering pets and treating their homes and yards in a frantic attempt to keep the bloodsuckers at bay.

Flea-control products can be topical (applied to the skin) or oral (taken by mouth). Some protect against other parasites, such as ticks or heartworms. They may contain insect-growth regulators, which prevent flea larvae from developing to maturity. Topical products kill adult fleas within hours. They are usually water-resistant, but if you bathe your pet often or he goes swimming every day, they may not be the best choice.

Be sure to wear gloves when applying topical products and to use only the amount directed – more is not better. Oral products require a prescription from your veterinarian. They are usually chewable, making them easy to give. Mark the calendar so you don’t forget when you gave the pill and when you need to give it again.

The product that will work best for your pet depends on your location and your pet’s lifestyle. If your cat goes outdoors, your dog goes swimming frequently or your pet has a high risk of tick exposure, your veterinarian will recommend products appropriate for those scenarios. Most important, never give your cat a flea-control product made for dogs. The formulations made for dogs can kill cats, so read labels carefully before using them on pets.

You can also take steps to control fleas in the environment, not just on your pets. Steam-clean carpets and furniture to kill larvae and eggs, and vacuum frequently. Wash pet bedding weekly, using the hot-water cycle. Keep your yard trimmed, and get rid of leaves or other plant debris in shady areas to reduce hiding places for fleas.

The latest flea-control products are fast-acting and effective, but if you have a flea infestation – or even if you have only a few – it’s still going to take some time before your pets will be fully flea-free. It could take as long as three to four months from the time you begin treatment until you see results.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with Dr. Becker can also be found at or on Twitter @DrMartyBecker.