Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of cat scratching © James A. Langbridge

I noticed one of my kitties itching profusely.
© James A. Langbridge

October 2011

Creature Comforts

Fleas: Our tiny foes

Johanna Schroeder

Imagine my horror in November of 2008 when I discovered all four of my cats were infested with fleas. Not only was I shocked to have an infestation occur so close to winter, I also was stymied by the fact that my cats were indoor pets, and had little or no contact with the outdoors. Thus began a frustrating, year-long journey down a path in which I learned more about fleas than I ever wanted to know. Hopefully my experiences will help other pet owners prevent the same nuisance from happening to them.

Indoor pets can definitely get fleas

I was foolish enough to believe that indoor pets were somehow immune to fleas. Wrong. I had one cat that was notorious for escaping any time he heard either the front or back door open. Even though we usually managed to capture him immediately and return him indoors, his brief encounters with outside freedom were long enough that fleas could have hitched a ride. I learned from many frantic phone calls to a vet in Prairie du Sac that flea eggs can attach to surfaces such as shoes, enter a home unseen, and hatch.

I also learned that my neighbors' infestation could have caused my infestation. When speaking with a pest control company about the possibility of treating my home they asked what type of dwelling I lived in. When I answered it was in a duplex, they said my neighbors would have to treat their home as well, and that the flea problem my neighbors had been dealing with since August could have caused my problem. Ever the definition of rude guest, fleas will find a way to enter a home uninvited, whether or not your pet goes outdoors.

Store-bought products don't always work

I can't speak for everyone and there may be a success story somewhere regarding flea treatments purchased at a regular store. But in my situation, I spent $500 on flea dips, sprays, bombs, liquid treatments, shampoos and combs only to realize that the fleas weren't even remotely affected. Only after I wasted a great deal of money and time, and exposed my poor felines to more stress and chemicals than they should have suffered, was I informed by the vet that store-bought flea products don't work. They answered my tearful questions, gave me excellent advice, and offered a solution to begin my road to ending the infestation. I did end up having to spend additional money on pills, Frontline™, and sprays, but the regimen worked.

The vet explained to me that the flea products you find in most stores do not contain a strong enough concentration of poison to kill fleas. And flea bombs – useless! By the time the bomb explodes and the chemicals hit the carpet area, they are so diluted that bombs are bummers. I was informed, though, that the flea treatments I had used on my cats up to that point were strong enough to potentially harm my cats. After a bath in mild dish soap to remove the chemical residues, I was able to proceed with the vet-recommended treatment. I saw results almost immediately.

Fleas can live up to one year without a host

Yuck! I read this information in an article recently, but I actually witnessed it firsthand. I had heard stories about fleas biting or being found a few months or even six months later, but not a year! This leads to my next bit of advice: even if you think you have conquered the problem, do not stop treating.

Treating four cats with Frontline™ monthly became very costly, so in September of 2009 I decided to quit treating the cats. A month later I noticed one of my kitties itching profusely. Every day for several weeks I gave her a few swipes with the flea comb and luckily found nothing. Then one day, I did find a single flea in her fur. I immediately started treating all of the cats again. Costly or not, I did not want to go through what I had almost a year before.

Another excellent way to prevent a future infestation is frequent vacuuming. Until you're sure the problem has been abated, be sure to empty your vacuum after every cleaning and immediately dispose of the contents outside of your house. Fleas can thrive happily in cracks, crevices and vacuums.

Prevention is the best solution

Currently, I have two fewer felines, continue with monthly treatments, and have been flea-free for almost two years. The most important lesson I learned from my ordeal: preventing an infestation from occurring is the best strategy by far.

Johanna Schroeder works at the Department of Natural Resources in the Bureau of Watershed Management and continues to share a happy, flea-free home with two cats and four kids.