Monday, June 14, 2010
It's late spring, the season of smiling skies, blooming flowers – and fleas and ticks.
Those creepy crawlies are at their busiest in late spring and early summer — and when you've got 'em, they're more than a nuisance. Americans spend about $9 billion annually battling fleas alone.
Here's how to know your foe and how to wipe him off the map (or at least eject him from the sofa cushions)
First, fleas: Know your enemy
Adult fleas are very small (as small as 1/8 inch) wingless insects, reddish brown or darker, that are compressed so that they look like they're walking on edge. Most of the fleas people deal with nationwide, regardless of whether they have a cat or dog, are so-called "cat fleas."
How do you know if you have fleas in the house? Your dog knows. "If your dog's scratching, just check him. Move your dog's hair around, and they'll start jumping. You'll see them," says Richard "The Bugman" Fagerlund, a syndicated newspaper columnist and author of books including "The Bugman on Bugs: Understanding Household Pests and the Environment." Do a thorough check of your pets, paying special attention to nooks such as under the forelegs; fleas need warmth and humidity to survive, Fagerlund says.
Here's another thing to look for: Fleas lay tiny white eggs. They also secrete small blackish feces — dried blood they've eaten — that the larvae feed upon. If you tousle your cat's fur and what falls out looks like salt and pepper, you have a serious flea problem, says Mark Sheperdigian, vice president of technical solutions for Rose Pest Solutions, based in Troy, Mich.
Fleas aren't just your pet's problem. When they bite humans, it's often on the lower legs. Know a flea bite by its small red spot surrounded by a red halo, without much swelling, according to the University of California's Integrated Pest Management Program.
However, some people can have an allergic reaction to flea bites. And fleas are suspected of transporting murine typhus to pets, as well as dog tapeworm to both cats and dogs.
The war against the little flea is a five-pronged attack:
1. Primp your pet. "Your pet's first line of defense against fleas is a flea comb and a good bath," say Mike Merchant and James Robinson, entomologists at Texas A&M University. "Soap acts as a gentle insecticide and helps control light infestations on your pet" while reducing the need for other pesticides. A flea comb is a fine-toothed comb that, when used, will snag adult fleas in the fur. It won't solve the problem, but will provide some relief.
2. Hoover away your cares. If flea larvae don't have those dried blood droppings to eat, "they will not turn into adult fleas," Sheperdigian says. So vacuuming is a major weapon. "Regularly clean where your pet sleeps," he says, as well as "wherever the animal spends a lot of time" and under furniture and along walls. Experts recommend vacuuming every other day while there's a problem. Vacuuming removes up to 30% of larvae and up to 60% of flea eggs from a carpet — not to mention their food, according to Merchant and Robinson.
Important: Seal up and throw out the vacuum-cleaner bags after use; flea larvae can survive in the bag and mature into adults, Sheperdigian says.
3. Wash some more. If your dog or cat sleeps on a bed or pillow, launder it frequently.
4. Treat your pet (and we don't mean with a dog bone). Many highly effective flea collars and other treatments are available through veterinarians and even over the counter today, Sheperdigian and others say. You want to be sure to buy something that contains an "insect growth regulator," he says — that is, a chemical that stops the flea's life cycle.
These come in several forms: as pills or food additives (under the name Program); at pet stores as pet sprays; as spot-ons, in which you dab a small bit on the animal's fur; and as flea collars. For more acute flea problems that require killing of adult fleas at the same time as controlling the larvae, veterinarians have still more options: Advantage and Frontline.
Want to go organic? Fagerlund, who is wary of putting pesticides on animals, prefers a different tack: When confronted with fleas, he recommends sprinkling a very light coating of diatomaceous earth on a dog's bedding and on its coat. (Diatomaceous earth is essentially crushed seashells that scuff insects and dry them out; it's often used against pests in the garden.) However, check with your veterinarian before proceeding; some worry that the material could dry out and irritate an animal's skin.
5. Treat the house. By now, your problem should be taken care of. But if your infestation is really stubborn, you might want to treat some areas of the house with an insecticide, too. "Citrus sprays containing limonene or linalool can be applied to rugs, carpeting and pet bedding," Merchant and Robinson say. "These products kill fleas on contact, but evaporate quickly and leave little residual protection against emerging fleas." Need more help? You might have to call in a pro; they have access to sprays with insect growth regulators in them.
Fagerlund recommends a light sprinkling of boric acid around trouble spots. "Just dust it into the carpet and brush it in with the broom, and let it sit for four or five days, and then vacuum it up."
Finally, steer clear of garlic, brewer's yeast and herbal collars — they're all ineffective, experts say.
Once you've done all of the above, you shouldn't have too much fear of fleas returning any time soon, the experts say. Maintenance is the best prevention: Vacuum frequently, and wash your pet's bed regularly.
Ticks: Know your enemy
There are dozens of varieties of ticks across the U.S. They're arachnids like scorpions and spiders, except ticks latch onto animals with their strong, barbed (if tiny) mouthparts and suck their host's blood. Ticks are usually found along the margins of trails, in woodlands and in shrubby areas where they can hop off a leaf or stem and onto an unsuspecting animal and begin feeding.
Bloodsucking is perhaps the least of humans' and pets' concerns, though. Ticks can carry a number of diseases, some quite serious, according to Colorado State University Extension. Diseases include Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, Colorado tick fever and Lyme disease.
A few words about Lyme disease, since it worries so many people: It's an infection caused by a type of bacterium that's carried by deer ticks. Untreated, it can cause severe symptoms ranging from joint pain to severe headaches to liver and kidney problems. The disease is treatable with antibiotics. Lyme disease is mainly confined to the Northeast and the upper Midwest states where its common hosts – deer and white-footed mice – are very common, according to the American Lyme Disease Foundation.
Here's what to do if you find a tick embedded in you, someone else or your pet: Grab the insect firmly with tweezers, as close to the skin as possible. Pull firmly and evenly, to extract the entire body and mouthparts. Don't use your fingers, Sheperdigian says: "What happens is you end up squishing it and letting his little body juices flow into your body juices, and that's not good." Why? That could cause inflammation, or something worse, he says.
Don't try to annoy the tick into retreating by applying home remedies such as hot matches, nail-polish remover or petroleum jelly; the Connecticut Department of Health says that "by using these substances, you may actually increase your chance of infection." Wash the area with soap and water and put antiseptic on the bite site afterward. Then keep an eye on it.
Keeping the little suckers at bay
Since ticks don't infest a home but attack independently in small numbers, you have a much better shot at blocking their entry in the first place. Here's how to prevent them from getting a grip:
1. When walking in tick country, stick to the middle of trails and try not to brush against grasses and shrubs.
2. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants in tick country, and tuck your pants cuffs into your socks. One study found that about 85% of adult ticks that latched onto the clothing of humans who were walking through a grassland attached themselves between the ankle and the knee, according to the University of California's Integrated Pest Management Program.
3. Consider using an insect repellent containing DEET (which can be applied to clothing or, more sparingly, to skin) or one containing Permanone, which kills ticks (but should be applied only to clothing).
4. Ticks can take anywhere from 12 to 24 hours to settle in for their meal. After you have been outdoors, do a thorough tick check: Strip down and feel and look everywhere, including your scalp and ears, for the little buggers. Thoroughly check any pet that's been outdoors, too.
5. Put a tick collar on Fido. Collars available today are highly effective, experts say.
6. Finally, make your yard unfriendly to ticks. "What you want is a nicely manicured lawn, and you don't want tall weeds, and you don't want the wildlife hanging around, because that's what brings the ticks," Sheperdigian says.
The state of Connecticut (which knows a few things about Lyme disease; the town the disease is named for is here) recommends still more. If you're worried about ticks in your backyard, create a "border" area of gravel, dry mulch or stone between your backyard and any woodland, and move play sets away from the edge of the woods. In more serious situations, some pesticides that kill ticks can also be applied to woodland edges.
And there you have it. Follow this advice and you'll be sure to keep the fleas and ticks from making your home and yard an insect circus.
Story By: Christopher Solomon
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