Tired of the itching and scratching? While a single flea can bother your dog, a single flea is an unlikely occurrence. According to Dr. Carolynn McAllister, a veterinarian at Oklahoma State University, “For every six fleas you see, there are 300 in the environment or on the pet.”

You’ve taken a flea comb to him. You’ve bathed and dipped him. You’ve purchased every flea repellant collar known to man. And your dog still has fleas! Treating the dog isn’t enough; you also have to treat his environment.

Did you know . . . In just thirty days, under ideal conditions, ten female fleas can multiply to over 250,000 fleas?

Siphonoptera, more commonly known as the flea, is a hardy insect that, like the cockroach, has been around for millions of years. It is highly adaptable to its environment, can go for months without feeding and is very difficult to get rid of. In the cocoon stage siphonoptera can remain dormant for months, an incredibly frustrating situation for the dog owner who thought he or she had the flea problem under control.

Controlling Fleas on the Dog

For many years the only methods of flea control were flea shampoos and flea collars. Today, the dog owner has a number of different options ranging from shampoos and dips to monthly oral treatments.

Flea Shampoos, Dips, Sprays and Powders: These typically contain either an extract from the chrysanthemum flower called pyrethrin or a synthetic version called permethrin. Pyrethrins and permethrins are generally safe when used as directed.

Symptoms such as drooling, vomiting, lethargy and tremors or seizures can indicate toxicity. Veterinary attention is necessary in cases of flea product toxicity.

  • Flea Collars: Useful as a preventive measure, a flea collar should be used before an infestation occurs or once it’s under control. Keep in mind that flea collars don’t work immediately: it takes some time for the chemicals to cover your dog’s entire body.
  • Monthly Topical Applications: Now you can apply the contents of a tube to a spot between your dog’s shoulders once a month to help control fleas. Products such as Frontline®, Advantage®, Zodiac’s Spot On®, Hartz’ Advanced Care® and Sergeant’s PreTect® kill and prevent fleas. Many of these products contain an insect growth regulator (IGR) that kills fleas before they hatch.
  • Flea Pills: These oral medications are available by prescription only. Given on a monthly basis, flea pills (Program® and Sentinel®) cause adult fleas to become sterile. Although flea pills don’t kill existing adult fleas, they help knock back the siphonoptera population by preventing successful reproduction. Sentinel also contains medication to prevent heartworm infection.
Flea Stats Getting a flea infestation under control is a lengthy process. This is because we typically focus on the adult fleas, which comprise a relatively small portion of the flea population in your home. This is a breakdown of how the flea population likely appears in your home:

  • eggs: 50%
  • larvae: 35%
  • pupae: 14%
  • adults: 1%

As you can see, true flea control means more than getting rid of the current adults. Your flea control program must also address the other stages.

Controlling Fleas in the Environment

The key to eliminating fleas is treating the environment and targeting the non-adult stages of flea that live in it. The fleas are concentrated in areas where your dog spends most of his time: his bedding, carpets, sofa cushions, shady spots in the garden, his doghouse or his kennel.

Before beginning any indoor treatment program, vacuum thoroughly to remove eggs, larvae and adults. The vibrations of the vacuum will help stimulate the emergence of the pre-adults from the pupae. Dispose of the vacuum bag or empty the canister immediately.

To prepare for an outdoor treatment program, mow the lawn and rake the yard and garden thoroughly. Remove leaves and other organic matter, especially from shaded areas.

  • Premise Sprays: These pesticides typically contain an insecticide such as pyrethrin that kills the adults, and an insect growth regulator (IGR) and/or insect development inhibitor (IDI). Inside the home, treat carpets (including under furniture), sofas and baseboards. When spraying outside, treat shaded areas including the area under raised patios, hedges and trees.
  • Flea Bombs and Foggers: Like sprays, foggers typically contain an adult insecticide and an IGR and/or IDI. To be effective, a fogger should be placed in each room. Treat hard-to-reach areas, such as under sofas and in closets, with a premise spray.

Remember that a single application isn’t likely to eliminate an infestation in the environment. Total control requires a second application in two to three weeks and possibly a third application in another two to three weeks.

Environmentally-Friendly Flea Control Because flea-control products contain insecticides, you may be interested in more “green” methods of control that have a far lower risk of irritating your dog.

  • Inside: Use flea traps—lighted devices that plug into a wall outlet. The light attracts the fleas that then get stuck to the trap’s sticky pad. Sprinkle food-grade diatomaceous earth or Borax in dry areas under furniture and in carpets. Then vacuum 24 hours later and continue vacuuming weekly. Launder your dog’s bedding often in hot, soapy water.
  • Outside: Nematodes are worms that attack flea larvae. Apply these to the shaded parts of your lawn and garden monthly to help control fleas outside. Nematodes are available at your local nursery.
  • On the dog: Some have found that adding brewer’s yeast, raw garlic and apple cider vinegar to their dog’s diet has helped prevent fleas. (Be aware that some dogs develop an allergic reaction to yeast. If you notice a skin reaction, discontinue use immediately.) Bathe your dog often using a mild, conditioning dog shampoo. Use a flea comb regularly and have a dish of soapy water on hand to drop the fleas into. Essential oils, such as tea tree oil, melaleuca oil or pennyroyal oil, can be used on the coat to help repel fleas. Be aware that inappropriate use of essential oils can be toxic to your dog.

Flea Dangers

In addition to being annoying, fleas can pose a health hazard to your dog. These are some of the most common health concerns associated with flea infestation:

  • Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD): Flea allergy dermatitis is a severe skin reaction to flea saliva. Along with extreme itching and chewing, FAD often causes hair loss and hot spots on your dog. Total flea control is vital to controlling FAD symptoms.
  • Anemia: One of the risks of a severe flea infestation is anemia that may require blood transfusions and other supportive care. Flea bite anemia can be fatal in puppies.
  • Tapeworm: Fleas are the intermediate host of the tapeworm (Dipylidium caninum) in that they’re host to the tapeworm larvae. When a dog chews at an irritated spot, he or she may ingest a flea infected with the tapeworm larvae. Eventually, the larvae mature in the dog’s small intestine, attach to the intestinal lining and shed segments that contain tapeworm eggs. These segments can be seen in the feces or around the anus of infected dogs and are often described as wiggling grains of rice. When these segments dry up, the flea ingests the eggs to continue the lifecycle. While only severe infestations of tapeworm can cause health problems, treatment of even a single worm is recommended.