With all the recent winter weather and below freezing days and nights it may be strange to think about controlling fleas on your pet.

With all the recent winter weather and below freezing days and nights it may be strange to think about controlling fleas on your pet.

Nevertheless, our average temperatures should be between 40 and 60 degrees…and soon will be (I hope). This is an ideal time to start preventive measures. Tick season also starts with warm weather…see next week's column.

Fleas are a serious problem for pet owners. These nasty little parasites thrive in warm, humid environments and live off the pet's blood. They carry diseases that are harmful to dogs, cats and humans. Moreover, fleas can live more than 100 days, producing millions of offspring.
When a flea bites a dog or cat and takes in their blood meal, they also inject an anticoagulant contained in their saliva. A few pets are lucky not to have much reaction to the bite but for others it causes itching due to sensitivity to the saliva. Pets may obsessively scratch, lick or bite at their skin when fleas are present. With some dogs or cats, only one flea bite can cause severe allergic skin reactions that are painful and distressing to them.

Allergic dermatitis manifests as redness, raw and weeping hot spots, loss of hair and increased pigmentation of the skin. Bacterial infection can also occur. If your pet has itching behavior, always consider fleas as the cause. The primary treatment of flea allergy dermatitis is to remove the existing fleas and be diligent about preventing future flea bites.

Fleas act as an intermediate host in the tapeworm life cycle. Through grooming and biting at the parasite, the animal ingests an adult, larvae-containing flea. The larvae grow to maturity in the intestines. When developed, the head of the tapeworm attaches to the intestinal wall and small egg-filled segments periodically break off and pass out the rectum. Tapeworm segments are easily recognized and seen in a fresh stool or around the pet's anal area. They look like flattened rice kernels that undulate. Your veterinarian can prescribe drugs that kill tapeworms. The key to tapeworm prevention is flea control.

Flea bite anemia may be a complication of severe flea infestations, especially in tiny kittens. With many fleas feeding at the same time, significant blood loss can occur, resulting in severe anemia. Some cats may not survive flea bite anemia. Many kittens do not.

It is possible for fleas to thrive year-round in your home. They progress from eggs to larvae, then to pupa and finally adults. This can occur in a warm, humid environment. Once eggs drop off of your pet, the developing flea lives in carpeting, furniture or cracks in the floor. Pupa can lie dormant for months, but under temperate conditions, they complete their life cycle in about three weeks. It is at this point that they hitch a ride on your pet.

If flea infestation is not already obvious, the best way to identify their presence is to look for "flea dirt" in pet fur. These tiny black specks are digested blood. Stand your pet over a white sheet, comb through their fur and examine the debris. If fleas are present, a drop of water will turn the black specks red.

Types of commercial products available for flea control include oral and systemic spot-on insecticides. These have proven to be more effective than most flea collars, shampoos, sprays, powders and dips.

With all these choices, it is best to consult your veterinarian as to the best flea control and prevention for your pet. Regular combing, bathing and vacuuming can help reduce and control but not eliminate fleas. When chemical control is necessary, choose a safer treatment and avoid the most toxic chemicals.

I recommend reviewing the information on the following website if you have concerns about toxicity, safety and environmental issues from use of some insecticides. More than 140 products are evaluated at: www.simplesteps.org/ greenpaws-products# /h/+/+/835.

Another source of information is at www.veterinarypartner.com/Content.plx?P=A&A=545. Wendy C. Brooks, DVM, DipABVP has developed a very comprehensive list of the 14 most common flea control products to help you fit the right product to your circumstances.

Anne Divine is a long time member of LAWS and has volunteered at Animal Control for 18 years. She can be reached at: adivine@kc.rr.com.