Friday, January 10, 2014

Fleas are more than a nuisance

"Protection against ectoparasites has never been so important, not only to prevent disease in the dogs themselves but also to reduce the risk of zoonotic disease" - Peter Irwin.

So last night I came home, and my cat Michael made a cry of distress. As I raced over to her she made an impression of a volcano about to erupt, the one that cats do just before they throw up. Those vital seconds that tell you GRAB THE PAPER TOWELS!!!!!!!!!!! Alas I was too slow. She expelled a 15cm x 2cm sausage of fur ball and her dinner.

While Mike is on flea control, as are all members of my household, this time in summer is the hardest to control fleas as populations peak. So she had been bothered by some fleas, overgroomed herself and produced a fur ball. 

My point is that fleas are a pain in a million ways - not just because they bite, but because they trigger a series of unfortunate events that results in fur balls, skin conditions, sleepless nights and behaviour changes.

But there are other reasons to resent fleas. 

Murdoch University specialist Peter Irwin has just written an excellent review on canine vector-borne diseases, and says we need to appreciate that "fleas are more than simply a nuisance". (It isn't just about fleas to be fair - ticks, sand-flies, mosquitos and flies can also transmit significant diseases to dogs and people).

They're estimated to be a factor in over 50 per cent of small animal dermatology cases, a figure that is certainly borne out in my experience.

But they can also transmit diseases such as bartonella and rickettsial diseases (especially Rickettsia typhi and Rickettsia felis) to humans. Bartonella is famous as the agent behind "cat scratch disease", but you don't have to be scratched by a cat to acquire it. A flea bite can transmit it.

This shouldn't come as a surprise - it wasn't so long ago that millions of people were exposed to Yersinia pestis (aka the plague) from fleas - and in some parts of the world still are.

Fleas also spread tapeworm (Diplidium caninum) and no one wants that.

The message is that good flea control is important for human and animal health. So how does one achieve it? It isn't always easy.
Scratching all day is not normal. Check your pet very carefully for fleas and yes, they are really hard to see. Example: I've combed Phil, a WHITE, SMALL dog, for ten minutes and seen nothing. Five minutes into a bath I've managed to catch a flea on him - after chasing it through his coat with a comb.

  • Treat ALL animals in the household with species-appropriate products (i.e. do NOT use permethrin containing products on cats; do not use fipronil containing products on rabbits; use the RIGHT DOSE at the right frequency.
  • It may be worth rotating products, but if you do so remember to choose something that provides cover against heartworm if you use a spot-on as your main heartworm control.
  • Wash all bedding, blankets and toys.
  • Wash your pet. NB I won't wash my cats alone. Its more effective to have them groomed professionally with the benefit of sedation, and safer for all involved. But wash your dog. And you may have to do it more than once.
  • Treat the environment. The eggs and larvae live off the host, and love hiding under your furniture, between floorboard cracks etc. Vacuum like a demon regularly (when fleas are bad, daily) and change the filter or bag each time.
  • If you do flea bomb the place be prepared - not all life stages of the flea will be equally or effectively annilhilated in most cases. So do all of the above anyway.
  • Talk to your vet about off-label dosing with flea products (your vet may recommend temporarily increasing the frequency of flea treatment).

To be very clear, this is not a sponsored post and I am not into over-selling flea products. I think they need to be used carefully in a whole program of flea control including environmental control, and I don't think any are perfect.

Some clients argue that flea treatments use chemicals and aren't natural. I get it, and I do appreciate this point of view. No one wants to give their pet any treatment that they don't need, me included. My response is that fleas, natural as they are, are not a benign entity and I personally would rather use flea treatment on pets than have them suffering with flea infestation that will only escalate. And suffer they do when they have fleas.

What lots of people don't realise is how fleas can impact their own health. So there's another reason to get rid of them.


Irwin PJ (2013) It shouldn't happen to a dog...or a veterinarian: clinical paradigms for canine vector-borne diseases. Trends in Parasitology 1249.