What to Do If Your Pet Has Fleas
From treating your furball to cleaning your home, this arsenal of flea fighters should take care of what’s bugging you both
Flea season is in full swing. If you’ve noticed your dog or cat scratching like crazy, it’s likely your pet’s furry body isn’t the only host of a blood sucking flea circus. Most of the time cats and dogs pick up fleas from their environment rather than from each other, so chances are your yard or even your house is infested.
What’s more, by the time you see the first tiny flat-bodied brown jumper — on your pet or nipping at your ankles — there probably are plenty more on the way. Given the right environment and an ample food supply — one cat or dog will do — fleas can keep reproducing for up to 100 days.
Dealing with a flea-for-all
What can you do about a flea infestation? First have your pet checked for tapeworm. Besides bubonic plague, fleas also are transmitters of tapeworm, a parasite that lives in the intestines of animals and humans. Tapeworms cause nausea, diarrhea, weight loss and poor absorption of nutrients from food. Untreated they can cause serious complications, including seizures. Then prepare for war.
To battle with the bugs on your pet, you can use a topical or oral flea control product. These contain pesticides that kill mature fleas on contact or after they feed on an animal that’s been treated. The larvae, which eat the animal’s skin as it sheds, are also killed.
Ask your veterinarian which product is best for your pet (cats should not be treated with dog products and vice-versa, for example) and purchase it from the vet’s office. You can also order pet meds online.
That’s the nuclear option. The Humane Society of the United States reports that as many as 1,600 pet deaths have been attributed to flea control products. More than half of them were caused by topical treatments that are squeezed from a tube onto the animal’s back (these are known as “spot-on” treatments). There also have been links between those pesticides and diseases in people.
Related: How to Keep An Outdoor Cat Safe
Safer ways to rid your pet of fleas
Fortunately, there are other effective weapons in the war against fleas, says Barbara Royal, DVM, former president of the American Holistic Veterinary Association and a vet in private practice near Chicago. Here’s what she suggests:
Use a mild-mannered killer. Try a flea control product that contains essential oils or less toxic insecticides. Some of these work by becoming stored in the animal’s oil glands, where they work for up to a month.
One popular ingredient in these products is fipronil, a broad-spectrum insecticide that’s generally safe, though you still need to use it with caution: Children are more sensitive to the effects of pesticides than adults.
Bubble away the trouble. You can try ridding your dog of fleas the old fashioned way: with a flea bath. “Flea shampoos contain a tiny bit of pesticide called pyrethrin,” says Royal. “It isn’t as powerful as the pesticides in topical flea treatments.”
Even so, she warns, it’s important to carefully follow the manufacturers’ instructions when using flea shampoo. “Pyrethrin can be toxic, particularly to cats and very young dogs.”
If the thought of using a pesticide-based shampoo on your pet unnerves you, Royal recommends a surprising alternative — Murphy’s Oil Soap, a hardwood floor cleaner that actually started out as a dog bath. Its citronella scent repels insects and will even leave your pet looking extra spiffy.
“It’s an oil-based cleaner with a healthy pH, so it will leave the animal’s coat soft and shiny,” she says. Murphy’s Oil Soap is potent, so use no more than one-quarter cup per four cups of water to bathe your pet.
Comb the bugs away. A flea comb has narrowly-spaced teeth that pick up fleas and their eggs. Comb fleas from your dog’s or cat’s coat outdoors. Start at your pet’s head and work your way down, combing in the direction that the fur grows. Have a bucket of soapy water nearby. Swish the comb in the water as you remove the fleas to kill them. Fill it only halfway so that any fleas that escape drowning immediately can’t jump out.
Home, flea-free, home
Once you’ve dealt with your pet, “vacuum the heck out of your house,” says Royal. When you’re finished, throw the vacuum bag into the outside trash. It’s likely to contain an entire population of eggs and immature fleas. Vacuum every day for several days.
If you have hardwood floors, wash them down with Murphy’s Oil Soap. Flea larvae like to bed down in the cracks in floorboards. Scrub plastic carriers or crates with a citrus- or pine-scented cleaning product.
Put any machine-washable items your pet spends time on (throw rugs, bedding, etc.) in the dryer on high heat for 30 to 40 minutes to kill fleas. Then wash the items as usual.
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, fleas (and ticks) love tall grass. Mow and weed your lawn regularly. The ASPCA also recommends keeping garbage cans covered so that you don’t entice flea-ridden raccoons or other wild animals.