Summer is flea season in some states, while in other parts of the country, like Florida and California, fleas bother pets almost year-round. Some places, like Denver, never get fleas, said veterinarian Kim Nicholas, past president of the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association and owner of the Cedar River Animal Hospital in Renton, Wash. (Fleas need humidity to thrive.)
When used properly, nothing kills fleas the way today's topical and oral treatments do, he said.
In the past, a flea-ridden dog could infest an entire home, including upholstered furniture and human bedding. But today's flea products are so effective, pet owners no longer have to treat their whole houses, said Alec Gerry, an associate extension specialist in the Entomology Department at the University of California, Riverside.
Even so, it is a good idea to vacuum or change bedding at the same time a pet is treated.
Commonly used flea control products include Frontline and Advantage. They are sold online and in stores without a prescription and are packaged in individual doses for direct application onto the pet's skin. Nicholas said they are considered very safe. "You put it between the shoulder blades so they can't lick it off. I've never seen a bad reaction, except they might get a little rash at the application site."
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recently announced a national campaign to emphasize the importance of flea treatments for pets. It teamed up with PetArmor, a new generic - and therefore cheaper - topical antiflea product available in retail stores like Walmart. The ASPCA, which will use the product at its shelter and adoption centers, said it has the same concentration of fipronil - the active ingredient that fights fleas - as Frontline.
Sergeant's Pet Care Products has just introduced two generic versions of Frontline and Frontline Plus. FiproGuard and FiproGuard Plus are available in PetSmart, Petco and other pet retailers. Pronyl OTC and Pronyl OCT Plus are at grocery stores, drug stores and mass retailers.
Nicholas called flea powder, flea collars and some flea dips "old-school flea control."
But combing or brushing your pet is still a good idea, he said. How do you kill a flea on a comb? Soapy water or crunching them with your fingernail, Nicholas said.
Baths can be fun for dogs and some cats, but you probably won't be able to keep their fur submerged in soap long enough to kill the fleas, Gerry said.
Some of the products available today not only kill adult fleas but contain insect growth regulators to kill eggs.
Avoid products that contain organophosphates or insecticide, Nicholas said.
And be sure to read the label before using any product. Products differ for cats and dogs, and dosage differs by the animal's weight. You also want to observe safe-handling procedures for yourself and your family.
Flea treatment is no problem for most dog breeds, Nicholas said, but shelties and collies cannot handle the drug Ivermectin, which is used in flea products that try to treat heartworm at the same time.
Untreated flea infestations cause pets to itch, scratch and "chew themselves raw," Nicholas said. Fleas can spread tapeworm and a tick-borne illness called Bartonella. A flea-riddled pet might become sluggish, start vomiting, get diarrhea, and salivate excessively.
If humans don't intervene, dogs and cats can't get rid of fleas, the veterinarian said.