Let’s talk about fleas…you know, those pesky little black bugs that like to live on your pets! Here in South Carolina, we generally don’t have cold enough winters to really kill off fleas - so while fleas are definitely worse in the spring, summer, and fall, they are still around in the winter as well, just in smaller numbers. This is why it is important to use flea medication year round in our climate. Your animals can get fleas any time they go outside (even if it’s just a quick trip to relieve themselves), from other animals, or even sometimes through the screens on porches or from you if you happen to carry some in on your clothes. Even indoor cats can end up with fleas!
Do over-the-counter products work?
Fortunately, there are many great flea medications to successfully treat these buggers. But first, let’s talk about some that are not as effective, and thus end up being a waste of money and a source of frustration. Many of the flea medications and shampoos available over-the-counter (OTC) do not work as well as prescription flea medications. Current OTC products are either ones that have never been good at safely and effectively killing fleas (i.e. Hartz, Sergeants) or are older generation medications.
While there is no official documentation of flea resistance to the older medications, anecdotally many of us (in the Southeast region in particular) have started to see that some of the older ones that used to work well are no longer as effective, and we are thus suspicious that a flea resistance has begun. It does seem to be regional, however, as colder parts of the country (where the fleas die in the winter so medication is not needed year round) are not having the same problems. Just like with antibiotic resistant bacteria, it makes sense that we will not be able to kill everything forever with the same medications.
what do you do when you see fleas or have an infestation?
Here are some steps you can take:
Get a newer generation flea medication from your veterinarian - we have seen great efficacy with these in comparison to the older ones, but they are by prescription only. Some examples include Nexgard, Bravecto, Simparica, and Frontline Gold for dogs, and Revolution Plus and Cheristin for cats. Most of these medications are given monthly, with the exception of Bravecto, which is every 3 months. (Nexgard and Revolution Plus are available for purchase at our hospital, all prescription flea medications can be ordered through our online pharmacy.)
If you do not have an active relationship with a veterinarian and are unable to establish one right away, the one over-the-counter medication that is effective for an active flea infestation is Capstar (nitenpyram), which is a pill that starts killing fleas in 30 minutes. However, this medication does not have any longevity past 24 hours, so it MUST be followed by a longer-acting medication.
Clean the house! Environmental management is important when you have a flea infestation, as you need to get rid of the eggs and other life stages of fleas that are hanging around. Immature life stages represent 95% of the flea population in your home. The goal is to minimize how many have the opportunity to become biting adults. The best techniques are to wash bedding frequently (yours and the pet’s) and vacuum like you’ve never vacuumed before (floor vents, couch cushions, etc)!
Making sure ALL the pets in your family are on a good flea medication - even if you don’t see fleas on other animals.
When Will it end?
It takes several months to entirely break the flea cycle as the pupal (cocoon) stage lays dormant and difficult to kill for generally 3 months and in some conditions, up to a year. After adult fleas emerge from those cocoons and find their way to your pet, the products mentioned above will quickly kill them with 99+% efficacy. When choosing a heartworm prevention for your dog, we strongly recommend Sentinel as it has an added medication called lufenuron, which essentially acts as a birth control for fleas. While lufenuron does not kill adult fleas, it does prevent them from reproducing. Once a flea infestation is under control, Sentinel maintains a flea egg-larvae-pupae free home environment without all the extra vacuuming and laundry.
What about bathing?
Baths are great for washing fleas and flea dirt (the black specks you can find on your pet’s coat, which is flea poop) off of animals, but will not prevent future fleas (even a medicated flea shampoo), so they must be done in conjunction with a monthly flea prevention. For animals that are too young to use a flea prevention, sometimes this is our only option to treat fleas, and in that situation we may recommend bathing daily or every couple of days as needed.
What about flea allergies?
As a final note, there is a subset of animals that have a flea allergy - this is not the same as a flea infestation! These animals are actually allergic to fleas, so even just a couple of fleas bites can cause extreme itchiness, hair loss, and secondary skin infections. The typical location we see this allergy manifest is on the back half of the body, including around the base of the tail and the hind limbs, although in severe cases it will move forward on the body. Not seeing fleas does not mean the pet cannot have a flea allergy. It is vital that these animals and their housemates be on effective flea medications year round to prevent the problem from recurring.
Make sure your animals are kept healthy and flea-free this summer so they (and you) can enjoy the great outdoors!