Spring is here meaning longer and warm days across the UK, but especially here in Cornwall. As the flowers and wildlife are starting to emerge from their winter hiding places, unfortunately so are the parasites. In the UK, pets are particularly at risk from flea infestation and tick bites as we head into spring. The side effects from these parasites can be unpleasant for both you and your pets, so the best solution is prevention and we are going to help you learn how in this article.
Fleas are small red/brown wingless insects that feed off warm-blooded animals. The most common type of flea in the UK is the cat flea, however, despite the name these fleas can also live on dogs, rabbits, wildlife and even humans. A single flea can live up to 2 years with females laying up to 1000 eggs in their lifetime. The eggs drop onto the floor and develop into larvae after 2 to 12 days, depending on the climate – it’s faster in the summer OR in centrally heated homes! Flea larvae are small white grubs with no legs, but strong mouths, living in the environment – in the carpets, the soft furnishings, or the dust between the floorboards. They feed off of adult flea debris before entering the pupal stage. This larval stage can take up to 200 days, however, in the summer it is considerably shorter ranging from 2 to 24 days. The adult flea usually emerges from the pupa after 5 to 14 days but this can be delayed for many months in poor conditions.
Adult fleas can be found in carpets, bedding, and soft furnishing and on pets. They rely on blood meals from animals in order to keep producing eggs. There are a few signs you can look out for that may indicate you have fleas in your home:
- Pets itching and scratching often
- Bald or red patches on your pet’s skin
- Small red bites on pets or yourself (often on the lower legs and ankles)
- Thickened skin particularly on ears
- Visible flea droppings
- Visible fleas jumping on pets or from carpets
Flea droppings can be seen by doing a quick and simple test. Using a flea or nit comb, part and squash your pet’s coat thoroughly making sure to get close to the skin without damaging it. Wipe the fur and any dirt onto a damp piece of cotton wool or tissue. Flea dirt will appear as reddish-brown smears on the tissue.
Itching and scratching isn’t the only consequence of a flea infestation. Some pets may be hypersensitive to the flea saliva, meaning that flea bites could lead to a more serious allergic reaction. Also, fleas have been found to carry and spread the Myxoma virus, the infectious agent behind the highly contagious and fatal rabbit disease, Myxomatosis. The most common canine tapeworm can also be transmitted to cats and dogs by swallowing infected fleas. For this reason, it is recommended that you make sure you are up to date with your pets’ wormers if you suspect they may have fleas. In very severe infections, especially in puppies, kittens or small mammals, the regular feeding behaviour of the fleas may cause anaemia as they consume blood faster than new red blood cells can be produced.
Fleas can easily be picked up from the local environment or wildlife when out on walks, or even by socialising with other cats and dogs. However, some simple steps towards prevention can greatly reduce the risk to your pets and yourself. The first step is to start a regular flea treatment, which could be a spot-on solution, collar, tablets or injections. There are benefits and risks to all these methods, so it is best to consult one of our vets to find the best method for your own needs. Additionally, not all methods and brands are suitable for all species, so if you are wanting to treat multiple different pets you may need a few different products – just remember, some products are toxic to some species!
Secondly, regular vacuuming and washing pet bedding can prevent infection. These simple actions will remove any unhatched eggs and immature larvae from your home environment, preventing them from becoming mature adults. If you suspect you may already have fleas in your home environment then an insecticide spray or powder is recommended. Again it is best to talk to us about suitable insecticides for your home as some may be harmful to pets and many are toxic to fish. If the problem persists, despite regular cleaning and insecticide application, then it may be time to call in a professional pest control service as a last resort.
Some methods of flea control and prevention are not as effective as the ones mentioned above. These include flea combs, flea shampoo and herbal methods. Flea combs are a good way of identifying the presence of fleas and regular grooming may help you spot the problem sooner. However, they will not help remove or kill the fleas. Flea shampoo is also a poor treatment option as it only provides short term relief, by killing the fleas present on your pet at that moment in time, but will not address the problem of fleas still living in your home environment. Although an attractive option, the majority of herbal methods are unproven and some may be harmful to pets, so are best avoided.
Spring is a wonderful time of year for you and your pets but can also be a time when parasites such as fleas start to thrive in the milder conditions. Although treatment is possible for most of these pests, prevention is often a much better option. Hopefully you will now feel a bit more informed and, with our help, you can help keep your pet happy and healthy year round.