Brace yourselves. With all the unseasonably cool weather and record rain across much of the country this spring, veterinary parasitologist Dr. Michael Dryden says fleas may put their bites on unprotected pets in record numbers. In fact, even before this year, flea populations have been escalating in alarming numbers.
Fleas are more than merely a gross, blood-sucking annoyance. The tiny pests can cause health issues in pets, including tapeworms, cat scratch disease and severe allergic responses. These issues require medical treatment, never mind an exterminator in many cases to deal with flea infestation.
"For example, some flea products to be used for dogs may be dangerous to cats," says Dryden, University Distinguished Professor of Veterinary Parasitology in the Department of Diagnostic Medicine and Pathobiology at Kansas State University, Manhattan. "If you have a pregnant animal, product choices can change. Lifestyle of your pet matters a lot."
Also, Dryden adds, "There are over-the-counter products which simply may not work very well, and may be a waste of money."
Add to this the fact that fleas aren't the only parasites you're forced to tackle. Pet owners need products to protect their animals from intestinal parasites (such as roundworms or hookworm) and disease-carrying ticks. Heartworm is widespread and requires protection.
So how can consumers know which flea product to buy?
"Pet owners don't need to know," says Dryden. "There are so many products, it's impossible to keep up and to really understand, but the good news is, your veterinarian will know."
Your veterinarian, someone you should be visiting anyway about heartworm preventative (only available only through veterinarians, unlike flea and tick products), can put the puzzle together. Veterinarians consider the big picture, including protection against heartworm, ticks and intestinal parasites, since some products protect against combinations of these, as well as fleas.
To determine what you need, your veterinarian will consider where you live (threats vary across the country), your pet's lifestyle (does your dog go swimming, for example), the mix of pets in your home, and even family's preferences (to use a spot-on product applied externally or chewable).
"Product recommendation from a veterinarian is professional advice you can't put a price on, and you certainly can't get at a big box store or by shopping online," says Dryden. "The veterinary recommendation (about what products to use) can save people money in the long run, and prevent headaches. It's really frustrating when you buy the wrong product."
It's equally as frustrating when products don't perform as promised. Fleas seem to have caught up with a few previously reliable veterinary recommended products, perhaps mostly in Florida and other states in the Southeast.
"Increasingly, we hear the 'resistance word,'" says Dryden. "It's more complex than it may seem," Dryden says. While it's possible some fleas really have developed a resistance to some products, it's equally as possible that pet owners have not consistently or correctly used the products, based on Dryden's research.
Sometimes, it's a matter of pet owners not protecting all pets in a household.
"I see it all the time," says Dryden, "Pet owners protect their dogs, but not indoor cats. So, if people or dogs bring in a flea or two, since the dogs are protected, those fleas instantly gravitate to the unprotected cats."
Climate changes (over several years), and increasing wildlife (which carry fleas into our yards) have contributed to skyrocketing flea numbers. While no one is in charge of counting fleas, Dryden says the flea threat is simply more significant today than ever. In the Southeast, flea numbers can perhaps overwhelm some products previously considered reliable. Still, veterinarians have solutions.
Dryden is still positive that pet owners can win the flea war.
"Winning the war is merely luck of the draw when pet owners purchase products on their own. Getting veterinary advice makes all the difference in the world."
(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)