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Use integrated approach to control fleas

Jeff Hahn

cat fleas on skin

Cat fleas feeding.
Photo credit: Nancy Hinkle

In the battle against fleas, it is important to use an approach that controls these biting insects on pets as well as in the animal's environment. You can do this by combining nonchemical and chemical means.

It is important to understand flea biology when preparing to tackle their control. Adult fleas feed on blood and spend almost their entire lives on their favorite hosts, cats and dogs. They also can feed on urban wildlife, including raccoons, opossums, skunks, and fox. Females lay eggs that are nonsticky and usually fall to the ground. After 2 - 5 days, eggs hatch into small, white worm-like insects.

They feed on flea feces (commonly referred to as flea dirt), which is largely composed of undigested blood. Larvae eventually make cocoons where they remain for weeks or months. Adult fleas emerge when cocoons are properly stimulated by warmth, carbon dioxide (breath),or vibrations.

A good first step in the fight against fleas is identifying where they are most common. This is usually where your pet spends a lot of time, e.g. eating or sleeping. Because flea eggs don't stick to the animal but drop off, you can expect a lot of fleas in those areas. You can test for the presence of fleas by using the white socks test. Walk through your home wearing white socks. The fleas, attracted by the warmth and movement as you walk, will jump to your feet and ankles. It is easy to see their dark bodies against the white background of the socks. If you are still not sure if and where you have fleas, pest control operators have access to a new light trap (Whitmire Micro-Gen's UltraLight flea trap) that is highly effective in attracting fleas.

Once you have located the flea hot spots, it is a good idea to vacuum, concentrating where you know fleas are present. Regular vacuuming can help reduce flea populations. Throw away vacuum cleaner bags (or if practical, freeze for several days) after using. Vacuuming also removes flea feces, an important food source for the larvae. A steam extraction carpet cleaner is effective in killing all stages of fleas. You should also wash any pet bedding in hot water. Wash any human bedding if it becomes infested with fleas.

Despite these nonchemical measures, you will probably need to use an insecticide. It is important to control fleas in your household at the same time you treat your pets. There are several products available to treat homes, such as permethrin. These products are available in ready-to-use aerosol cans. Spray along baseboards, under and around furniture, in areas where pets sleep or play, and other places where fleas occur.

Methoprene is a type of insecticide known as an insect growth regulator (IGR). Insect growth regulators interfere with the fleas' normal development, causing the immature fleas to turn into non-biting, sterile adults. IGRs are very effective against immature fleas and virtually nontoxic to people and animals. However, they do not affect adult fleas and are usually combined in aerosol sprays with another residual insecticide (e.g. permethrin).

You may also want to consider an experienced pest control service to treat your home for fleas. Their knowledge plus a larger assortment of products allows pest control companies to control fleas effectively.

To control fleas on pets, use a dip, spray, shampoo, or dust that contains a labeled insecticide, such as permethrin or carbaryl. Many of these products are available through veterinarians. When using these products, it still important to treat fleas on the premises. However, there are several new products that are only available through veterinarians that are highly effective in controlling fleas on pets so that it is not necessary to also treat inside homes. These products are very low in toxicity towards animals and people.

Program™(active ingredient lufenuron) is a pill which is ingested by either cats or dogs. Although it does not kill adult fleas, it prevents them from reproducing and laying eggs. Advantage™ (active ingredient imidacloprid) is a liquid spot-on treatment applied to the back of the neck for cats and between the shoulder blades on dogs. Advantage™ is effective in killing adult fleas. A third product is Frontline™ (active ingredient fipronil). It is also applied as a spot-on similar to Advantage™. Frontline™ not only is effective in controlling fleas but also in killing ticks and mites as well.

The information given in this publication is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the University of Minnesota Extension is implied.

Published in Yard & Garden Line News, October 1, 2000

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