October 16, 2011

Life's an itch?

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

People who study the lowly flea will tell you that one of the best ways to keep the tiny pest out of your house is to vacuum.

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Fleas can cause many problems – some serious – in house pets. And homeowners may find it maddeningly hard to get rid of an indoor infestation, which usually requires an integrated attack targeting the ones on your pet and the ones on your stuff.

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FLEA FACTS

SIZE: 1/12-inch to 1/6-inch

SHAPE: Flat

LEGS: Six

COLOR: Dark-reddish

MODE OF TRANSPORT: Jumping onto a host

FOOD: Blood

LIFE CYCLE: From egg to adult can range from 16 days to a year

FAVORITE CONDITIONS: Moist and warm, but not hot

OFFSPRING: A pair of fleas can produce 400 to 500 offspring in their lives.

DID YOU KNOW? A flea can jump about eight inches, or more than 100 times its own height. That would be like a 6-foot-tall man jumping more than 600 feet in the air.

A lot.

And don't forget to empty the vacuum bag right away.

Sounds simple. But if you don't, you'll be creating more of a problem for yourself.

"Fleas would survive very well in a vacuum bag," says Jim Dill, pest management specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Orono. "It's warm, they have debris (for food) and eggs and larvae. When you have fleas, you really have to vacuum, and then always empty the bag."

After a very wet summer followed by an unseasonably warm fall, people in Maine are finding flea problems popping up where there used to be none. And they're also finding out, as Dill points out, that there's no easy way to get rid of fleas in your home.

It takes an integrated attack, for one thing. You've got to treat your pet -- after consulting with a veterinarian -- at the same time as you treat your house.

And treating your house may mean doing lots of small, painstaking tasks on a regular basis.

LITTLE PEST, BIG PROBLEM

Vacuuming is important, flea experts say, because it stimulates larvae to come out of their dormant stage and start moving around. Then it's easier to spot them and get rid of them.

"We find that people who have a recurring problem maybe aren't vacuuming the hardwood floor, or aren't vacuuming the cracks and crevices where lint and cat hair can get into, or they're not treating the garage and the basement and all the other areas of the home the pet can get into," said Ralph Blumenthal, operations manager for Maine-based Atlantic Pest Solutions.

So why are people having more flea problems this year?

Well, it was wet and warm this summer in Maine, which are good flea-breeding conditions, Dill said. Fleas don't flourish as much in very hot climates or in dry climates.

Fleas are fairly easy to spot. Even though they are tiny -- about 1/6 of an inch -- they are dark-reddish and show up on light colors.

Dill says if you want to find the "hot spots" for fleas in your house, put on some white socks and walk around. Fleas are attracted by vibrations, and they'll jump onto the socks. Take a dish of soapy water with you, pick them off your socks and drop them in the water.

Another way to tell if you have fleas in the house is if your pet is scratching or biting itself more than usual. Some dogs will bite at fleas on their skin so much that they cause scabbing, said Lindsay O'Grady, hospital manager at Brackett Street Veterinary Clinic in Portland. Others will have an allergic skin reaction to fleas or hair loss.

Some cats can become anemic (fleas feed on blood) and possibly die, said O'Grady.

GET HELP FOR YOUR PET

So if you have fleas, bring your pet to the vet. O'Grady says that at Brackett Street, they have two basic medications for fleas. One is a pill that basically kills adult fleas on your pet through the bloodstream, but it only works for 24 hours. The pill is good for getting rid of a large infestation quickly.

Then there are topical medicines that keeps fleas from reproducing, thus killing an infestation over a period of time. A veterinarian will often recommend a pill followed by a topical treatment monthly for three to six months, O'Grady said. Sometimes more than one topical treatment has to be tried, because not every one will work on every pet or on different infestations of fleas.

A dose of six pills might cost about $25, while a topical medicine might be about $16 a treatment. O'Grady said it's important for people to think of flea prevention as a habit, not a one-time event. "It's something people have to stay on top of."

Blumenthal said that if you're treating your home with pesticides, tell your veterinarian so the pet doesn't "overdose" on a combination of chemicals and medicines.

CONTROLLED TREATMENT

In conjunction with vacuuming and washing bedding or cushions that pets have contact with, Blumenthal recommends treating fleas in the home in a controlled way. He doesn't like to use flea "bombs," which are basically chemical fogs that waft through the home and settle on things. They often don't settle where the fleas are, like under furniture or in cracks.

So Blumenthal's company will spray the chemicals -- mixed with water -- on specific areas.

There are basically two general classes of pesticides used on fleas, indoors and out, Dill said. One is an "adulticide" that kills adult fleas. These are categorized as "broad spectrum" pesticides, and could have an adverse impact on other animals or even children especially if used improperly, Dill said. But if it's used according to directions, you shouldn't run into problems.

The other kind of compound used for flea control is known as an IGR, or "insect growth regulator." This very specifically targets arthropods by interfering with the molting process, and therefore stopping young fleas from reaching adulthood.

Blumenthal said that after his company sprays in a house, he generally recommends that people stay out for at least four hours. He says he'll tell people where the last area of the home to be sprayed will be, so that the homeowner can test that area by dabbing it with a tissue. If it's a damp or muggy day, it may take longer to dry.

Blumenthal said the average cost for treating a home with fleas this way is probably $200 to $450, on average.

If you don't want to use substances to kill the fleas or control growth, then your main option is probably to be really vigilant in removing and preventing fleas, Dill says. Vacuum, steam-clean your rugs, wash dog beds and linens frequently, and even walk around in white socks to attract the little pests.

But you have to be persistent, Dill said. Flea larvae can stay dormant in your house for a long time, and then emerge months later as adult fleas. So you might think the fleas are gone, than all of a sudden, they're not.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: rrouthier@pressherald.com

 

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