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September 11, 2007 > The little vampires

The little vampires

By Nancy Lyon

Called "amiable little vampires" by the Smithsonian Institute, fleas are actually unpleasant, small parasitic insects that live off the blood of mammals and birds - not our best friends.

We live in an area where moderate temperatures make for pleasant living but it also provides an ideal environment that allows fleas to exist all year long. These blood-sucking critters especially thrive in warmer weather so late summer and early fall are often the worst months for dealing with fleas.

The preferred host for these meals is your dog, cat or other animal. The leading cause of skin problems in dogs and cats is the ordinary flea, and in heavy infestations fleas will readily bite humans as well.

Almost all dogs and cats that are bitten by fleas will have some itching, but some will develop a severe allergic skin condition called flea allergy dermatitis. Once sensitivity develops it can become a lifelong battle to control the misery. Not only does your animal companion face discomfort and stress, heavy flea infestations can even cause anemia and death. Hypersensitivity to flea saliva leads to the itch-and-scratch-bite-and-lick cycle and can do more than drive you and your animal crazy. It can lead to serious infections and open sores.

Dogs that have flea allergies will bite at the base of their tail and scratch frequently. The bite of a single flea can cause hours and days of intense itching. There is often a characteristic loss or thinning of hair above the base of the tail. In addition fleas or flea dirt (feces) can be found on the dog the majority of the time. Severely affected dogs may itch over their entire bodies, have generalized hair loss, and red inflamed and infected skin. Hot spots are often a result. Cats with flea allergy dermatitis can have many symptoms including an irritation which is characterized by crusty small, red, raised skin lesions and symmetrical hair loss.

Fleas can be diagnosed on your animal by finding the adult fleas, the flea dirt, or flea eggs on the skin. These can be seen most easily on the rump and the thinly-haired belly. Flea "dirt" is actually flea feces from half digested blood. It looks black, but will appear red brown when smeared on a white paper and turn red when moistened with water. Flea eggs look like tiny, white sand grains. Adult fleas are small, brown and wingless, a little larger than the size of a pinhead. They move fast and can leap great distances.

Fortunately your and your animals don't have to suffer in this manner. For less than the price of one pizza a month you can insure the comfort and well-being of your animal companion. Topical products are now available that can be used on your dogs and cats monthly to control both adult and immature fleas. Be sure to treat all the animals in your household, untreated animals are a reservoir for more flea production. These products are available at your vet office and at many pet supply stores. Vets will often match online prices so check them out.

However, in the most severe cases you must not only eliminate fleas from your pet but from their environment as well. You must disrupt the life cycle of the fleas in your home. The adult fleas you see represent only one percent of the flea population. The other 99 percent are the mostly unseen eggs and immature developing fleas that live in your rugs, furniture the animal's bedding, or outside. To completely control fleas, you must control this reservoir of developing fleas as well as the adults. Your veterinarian can tell you which products will be safest and most effective for your situation

Severe reactions can occur from combining more than one flea control product at a time, so always consult your veterinarian.

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