When it comes to pet owners' biggest nightmares, flea infestation tops the list. Those tiny, blood-sucking pests spawn faster than you can grab a can of Raid, their bites leave animals itchy and irritable, and once they've made your pet into their new home, they're surprisingly difficult to evict. Here's the 411 on our flea "friends."
WHERE TO FIND THEM
Fleas love hot, humid weather, so summer is their time to shine. However, if you live in a climate that's warm all year round, your animal could get fleas at any time. Ick! Outside they lurk in grassy, shaded areas until they can jump on a host. Once in your house, if not on a pet, they like to hang out in bedding, carpeting and darker places like underneath couches and beds.
Fleas spend most of their time on your pet, but their top party spot is the base of the tail, says Sue Chastain, DVM. If you don't see fleas jumping on and off your pet, check for pests by facing your cat or dog away from you, putting your thumb on the base of his tail, and slowly moving your hand toward his head—essentially rubbing the fur the wrong way. You're checking for the bugs or their excrement, which looks like tiny grains of dirt. Place the "flea dirt" in a drop of water—if it's red, it came from a flea.
Your best bet, recommends Chastain, is a topical flea medication prescribed by your vet to kill the fleas at the source: your pet. Consult your vet to get the proper dosage for your animal's age and weight. And never share doses between pets unless instructed by your vet. Since medicine is made for a particular animal's body type, what works for one could be harmful to another.
Another option—lemons! The citrus extract called d-limonene is registered by the EPA as a safe insecticide and can kill fleas. Simply cut up a lemon, boil it in 2 to 3 cups of water, then let the mixture sit overnight. Once the liquid has cooled, either comb it through or spray it on your pet's fur. This method won't work as fast as traditional meds, but many people swear by it as a natural solution.
However, always use natural remedies with caution, says Lori Bierbrier, staff veterinarian for the ASPCA. "The formulation of human products might not work well on animal skin or fur, and might cause more harm than good," she says. Consult your vet before applying any DIY flea cure, especially if your pet has allergies or sensitive skin.
While there's really no way to prevent fleas from jumping on your pets, you can ensure that one bite doesn't turn into an itchy infestation by vacuuming often—at least twice a week—and washing your pet's bedding at least once a week. Bathe your pet if you can, although sometimes that's easier said than done when it comes to cats. Regular grooming with a flea comb can also help you spot pests early and get rid of eggs too.
Sources: Dr. Sue Chastain, Chastain Veterinary Medical Group; Dr. Lori Bierbrier, staff veterinarian, ASPCA.