by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
Some will consider this an unnecessary, cautionary note. At this point in time, they will say, we should be celebrating victory over an arch rival, the flea, not worrying about how to maintain our success.
I would certainly agree, never before, certainly not in the years since I became a veterinarian, have we had such effective, safe measures to treat and prevent flea problems for our pets. There are a number of different medications produced by several most reliable pharmaceutical manufacturers. There are drugs that can be given prior to flea exposure that should prevent infestation, if contact with fleas occurs. For cats and dogs found infected with fleas, there are products your veterinarian can dispense that should quickly and reliably end the problem with a minimum of effort required of the owner. Gone are the days of repeated insecticidal baths, powders, sprays, and vacuuming anywhere in the house where a pet had spent time. We can deliver these products to our pets by applying a few, quickly absorbed drops to the skin over their shoulders, in a tablet that can given by mouth, or via a painless injection for cats. These medicines are used every year by millions of pets in countries around the world. They have been available for several years and have proven extremely safe and without side-effects for the pets treated with them and for human family members living with these pets. What's more, to this point in time, there appears to be no flea resistance developing to their use. Yes sir, we've never had it so good!
It's that last point, though, that causes me a twinge of anxiety. Fleas have been a very formidable foe for veterinarians for as long as our profession has existed. They have been a very nasty adversary for animals for thousands of years before veterinarians appeared on the scene. They have a long history of survival. One female cat flea, living on a dog or cat, or any number of other wildlife species who live in our backyards and neighbourhoods, can lay up to 28 eggs per day. In her lifetime that can add up to 2000 eggs. Multiply that number by the number of female fleas on any heavily infested animal, tame or untamed, and you come up with an awfully big number. My concern is that we may not have had the last word from the flea, just yet.
Agricultural experts who have had to deal with insect enemies in their field, I believe, would agree not to become over confident that victory over the flea has been achieved. Fleas, like all insects, have the ability to develop resistance to many of the chemicals we use to control them, if those chemicals are used unwisely. A case in point is the boll weevil whose devastation to the cotton industry in the southern United States is well recorded. Over 80 years of intense insecticide use against the boll weevil failed to eradicate it and only through the use of an integrated Pest Management Program has control been achieved. These complex programs rely on a number of different strategies in the attack against the boll weevil.
Keeping in mind that most likely, similar programs will be necessary to ensure the sustainable control of fleas, now and in the future, what steps should we be taking now?
We should be battling fleas with different control strategies, including both chemical and non-chemical methods. We need to choose the chemical controls wisely, perhaps rotating or using concurrently, ones that that have a different method of action against the flea. This includes the use of both products that kill adult fleas and insect growth regulators and development inhibitors to kill the immature stages. Pet owners who are using flea products need to know the proper timing and application methods for the products recommended. It is very important that products should always be used as directed. Improper dosing can speed the onset of insecticide resistance. Increased frequency of application or use of a product at a dose higher than recommended on the label should always be avoided. Finally, vacuuming, removal and washing of pet bedding, elimination of yard areas where stray or wild animals cause flea infestations and other non-chemical techniques historically used in flea control should be included in control programs today.
The flea problem season begins as soon as the warm weather arrives. With the help of your veterinarian, be part of the solution for you and your pet.