Flea Control?

You wake up one morning with an itch. You look down and notice a row of small red welts. After a few days your house is crawling with these nasty little blood suckers. Finally, in desperation, you herd up the family and "bomb" the house. This works for a few days, but then the vermin are back with a renewed vengeance. Before you ban your family pet outdoors, try a few of these suggestions.

Obviously, if I had a cure, I'd be wealthy. Using a bit of common sense and products you can pick up at the grocery store can keep this problem under control. Please excuse typos on this page. It's making me scratch just writing about it.


Contents (links on this page)


Your Risks

In some regions, fleas and ticks just can't be eliminated. If you have tall grass and fields around, you will have an occasional infestation. In areas with cold weather, a good freeze will rid your yard of these pests, but in milder climates they can grow worse from year to year, unless you take precautions.

If your pet goes out in the field, or around other dogs, he will pick up fleas. I've trained my dogs with the "buggy" trick. When coming home we "look for buggies". He rolls over so I can examine his belly for any new pests. Cockers like belly rubs, but not the spray when we actually find a "buggy". It helps to make it a game, as well as a ritual when returning from an outing.

Sometimes fleas and ticks are brought to your pet. In the south, my mom described when it "rained" ticks. She said they came in on little webs. In other cases, they are brought in on other animals. In the city, possums are common, as are cats, and both can drop fleas. In the country, other animals will also find their way through your yard. I don't have any experience with ticks, but I suppose they will respond to similar measures.


The Enemy

The flea is a parasite that lives off warm-blooded animals. We are familiar with the adult stage of the flea, because it is at this time they become the biting pests we hate. A single pair of fleas can lay thousands of eggs, so in a couple weeks your house can be teaming with vermin. Adults can live for nearly a year, but can be killed with pesticides, but eggs are relatively immune to pesticides. When eggs hatch, they go through a larval stage, feeding on organic debris. Eggs can remain dormant for a period of time, and the larval stage lasts 15 to 200 days, which explains why they can reappear at a later time. In this stage they live in carpets and pet bedding.

We can attack the pests where they live. Cleanliness is important here. Wash your pet's bedding. Vacuum cleaner bags suck up eggs and can reinfest the house. Empty them outside immediately. Fleas can be sprayed where they live outside, and bombed in the house. They will be back in 2 or 3 weeks, so must be attacked again and again, until all are gone. We can also make our pets less desirable, through the use of sprays and organic products.


Flea collars

For the most part flea collars are minimally effective. They help keep fleas away from the head but can't really control fleas. Basically, it would be like putting a pest strip across the doorways of your house. If fleas tended to collect around the neck, they would be effective. In real life, fleas like to venture the entire dog and lodge in ears, arm pits, and on the belly.

Some Cockers have sensitive skin and the collar will irritate, causing sores and even health problems. In other dogs, the fur is too heavy to be an effective block. If you use a flea collar, leave it loose, or go for one of the "tag" type flea controls. It can't hurt, but is not a true flea block.


Shampoos

If your pet is bathed weekly, this can be one of the best deterrents to fleas, since it provides an excellent opportunity to closely examine your pet. Remove excessive hair and mats before the bath, to provide a shampoo its best opportunity to work. Save those old shampoo bottles. 1 or 2 ounces of shampoo, mixed with hot water, makes application of the shampoo easier.

Any shampoo is effective for killing fleas, but special flea shampoos may be more effective. With heavier coats, wash your pet and rinse 2 or 3 times, until the coat is clean. The final wash must be applied to all areas of the dog and left in place for 10 minutes to be an effective flea killer. Shop around to find a shampoo that leaves your pet's coat clean and shiny and help condition the skin. My personal preference is Avo-derm flea and tick. By contrast, their conditioning shampoo tends to irritate my pets' skin and causes them to scratch.

Lathering under arm pits, ears, and below the belly is difficult. Heavy fur keeps the shampoo from reaching the skin and tangles or mats offer easy hiding places for fleas. Fur mats can be completely waterproof. These mats of fur may hold an amazing number of fleas and eggs. An hour after a bath or flea dip, the fleas are free to swarm once again. To get shampoo down through a heavy coat, use a plastic brush (rake) such as the one made by Sergeants. Its inch long bristles can reach down to the skin. A gentle but thorough brushing removes tangles and scrubs to the skin.

I find shampoos work best when fur is fairly short. During flea season regular bathes can be an effective deterrent, as well as making your pet more cuddly. Some dogs require weekly showers, while others can go for a month between bathes. I have installed a shower head on a long hose which makes showers much easier. My pets simply join me in the shower on Saturday.


Dips and sprays

When the house is infested with fleas, the first thought is to grab Buddy and douse him with a pesticide. A few days later, he's reinfested, so we repeat the treatment. One thing to remember, anything that kills insects is potentially harmful to humans and pets.

Years ago, when our pet came in with fleas, we'd grab him up and douse him with flea powder. I remember powdering my dog, powder flying in all directions, without a second thought. Some powers are relatively safe, but I'm not sure how effective they may be. At best they might have some effect, at worse they may include a pesticide, which can be inhaled or ingested during and after application.

For an insecticide to be effective, it must get to the insects. For this reason, liquid dips work best. Not only do they penetrate, but many have ingredients that claim to continue working for weeks. Dips vary widely in their ingredient list, as well as in their effectiveness. Some contain dangerous chemicals while others offer safer organic compounds. Some chemical dips warn the user to wear gloves and to avoid skin contact, but then suggest they be applied to a pet who may lick himself dry. Organic dips often contain a citrus base. This smells great but many groomers are not sold on their total effectiveness or complete safety. Some organics work by repelling insects, but not necessarily killing them. These are a much safer product but not necessarily effective.

As with any poison, consider where the product is disposed. In the bathtub the poison goes down the drain. One "effective" use is to apply the dip, using a plastic sheet to catch the runoff. This runoff can be applied to plants outdoors.

The most effective method of applying dips is, as the name implies, to dip the pet. Watch your newspaper and you'll probably notice pet dips being offered. Some of these are free or are used to raise donations for a good cause. In "bulk" applications they can fill a large wash tub and immerse the pets. Be sure to wet the ears but keep it out of the ear canal and eyes. Once again, check the ingredients and manufacturer's warnings. Unfortunately, these dips are not always available when you need them and transporting a poison covered dog home. The best solution is to take a walk after dipping the dog, to allow them to dry without licking themselves.

Another source of dips is your local groomer. Some grooming shops maintain a dip tank, while others pour the dip, as you can do at home. If you trust your groomer, this is the most convenient method of applying flea control. You pick up your dog dry, and the fee is reasonable. In Eugene Oregon we are lucky enough to have a do-it-yourself dog wash, Suds 'Em Yourself. Here I can clip my pet, give him a bath, buy a gallon of dip, and follow up with a blow dryer and grooming station... all for under $10.

Concentrates are available for home use. One such product is Zema Dip. This product, when mixed with water according to directions, is fairly safe. Ask your vet or groomer for product suggestions. It is applied by pouring it on your pet. I prefer to do this outside, weather permitting, where I can lie him on his back and begin by wetting the underside first, then thoroughly wetting the rest of the coat, then taking him for a long walk to dry. On inclimate days the dip can be applied in the bathtub. I block the bathroom door with a large box fan. A small electric heater helps warm the room to 80 degrees and the fan circulates air. The dogs don't like this method nearly as much as the former.

The last method of application, especially effective for spot sprayings, is to apply dip from a spray bottle. Your pet will appreciate the effort if the solution is warmed before application. You can place the filled bottle of dip in hot water for several minutes before application. Spray it into the fur and use your hands to work it into the coat. Keeping the belly shaved and the coat short allows this mixture to penetrate. This works well with "looking for buggies", as explained earlier.


Organic Treatments and Systemics

Chemicals continue in their popularity because they "work better" than organic treatments. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't look for healthier alternatives. Systemic treatment allows for a creature to absorb repellents into its system. This is similar to systemics used in growing roses. Here a chemical is taken up through the roots, so the rose is no longer appetizing to aphids.

I'm not sure how effective it is, but I like to use dips made from Citronella. They leave my dog flea free and smelling of oranges. In the peel of citrus is a mild pesticide. The oil is extracted and used in these products.

A few years ago the local health store was selling an herb (I think it was Penny Royal) for controlling fleas. I bought 5 pounds, and it lasted for years as a spot spray. In theory, it's a flea repellent. A small amount of water is boiled on the stove, and a measure of Penny Royal is floated. When it sinks to the bottom the tea is ready. When cool, it's ready to be strained and applied to the dog's coat. I had to apply it to Winston 2 or 3 times a week, and still new fleas showed up. To be truthful, nothing kept fleas off Winston, so perhaps he's not a good example. It probably reduced the number of fleas, was safe, and gave him a wonderful herb scent.

Ask your health food store about the wonders of garlic and yeast. These are an excellent control for various biting insects. As I understand it, yeast makes the blood "bitter" and garlic changes the skin's scent. Weakened plants attract more insects, as do certain people (myself included). I have found them somewhat useful during misquito season. Besides, both are good dietary supplements, even if not totally effective. In this vein, I feed my dogs Avo-Derm foods, which have brewer's yeast. I noticed a remarkable drop in fleas after this time, finding only one flea during the entire season. (Note: This changed in 1997. The dog's skin condition became more itchy than before, and fleas more common. I wonder if the manufacturer changed the formula.)

Chemical systemics are a fairly recent innovation and can be quite effective. These are sold under a variety of brand names. Once a month, a small tube is applied to the skin in back of the neck. This is absorbed by your pet and kills or repels most fleas. My favorite is Advantage. This is sold only through vets and is expensive, about $33 for 4 tubes. Other brands are as cheaper, as little as $2 per tube, but use different ingredients. I have tried 2 other brands and did not find them effective. The main drawback is the chemical smell, which gives me headaches, until it's absorbed, about 24 hours. I find I can use a half dose on each dog. This absorbs more quickly, cuts the expense, and seems to be equally effective. I use this treatment only when fleas are prevalent, which reduces its effectiveness considerably. Applied monthly, they would probably not have fleas. I like to apply it in early morning and give the dogs a good airing. In the evening, I use a damp washrag to remove the excess from their coat. This minimizes the smell and headaches.

I'll cover borax and ammonia when covering treatments for inside and outside.


Grooming

I cover this topic in its own page, but it bears repeating here. Grooming makes the difference in pest management. If mats form, you have an environment favorable for vermin. Thick fur makes for a beautiful pet, but makes pests particularly difficult to locate and treat. Combing and bathing becomes a long, drawn out process.

I've had Cockers with long flowing coats. I was willing to spend the time to keep them groomed properly. Each Saturday's bath and grooming took an hour or two and a quick combing was needed on Tuesdays and Thursdays before going out on our walk. This was my hobby, so it was worth the effort. As my interests went in other directions, I found I could clip his coat shorter and we free up considerable time. Weekend grooming took half the time and were only needed every 2 or 3 weeks. I also noticed the "dust bunnies" of tangled dog hair didn't collect under furniture and in corners.

Another of my pets developed a skin condition, combined with bumps and a bad smell between bathes. The vets couldn't offer any suggestions other than this was "normal" for Cockers. When I kept his coat clipped short, these problems almost disappeared. As a side, I noticed I could easily locate any new fleas, and eventually eliminated them completely. Not only is a clean dog more fun to pet, but he'll enjoy them more.

At very least, I recommend the modified clip. This is a clip of the belly region up to the rib cage, and includes the inner thighs. Also clip the "arm pits", the area beneath the front legs where tangles form. This makes for a cleaner pet, and makes locating "buggies" so much easier that I'm surprised it isn't included in the standard clip. When your pet is standing, his clip will look no different.


Inside

Most of this page has covered how to treat your pet to keep pests off him. If you have fleas inside your house, it's "too late". Keeping pests off him will help eliminate the "carrier" but won't cure the underlying problem. BTW, when treating your dog, don't forget the cat. Fleas won't be as noticeable on her, but she can still carry them. Besides, it will make your Cocker feel better to see the cat get a bath. There's that shared-suffering bonding kind of thing going on.

A few years ago, there was a huge growth in organic exterminators that hit the market. They come into your house and spray a "safe spray", and give the house a treatment that will kill fleas, guaranteed. If you have birds, or any other pet, take them out of the house. Birds are especially sensitive to sprays and dusts... why do you think they used canaries in mines to warn of gas? Even if a 100% safe guarantee is given, why be sorry? Invite in the exterminators, and you'll be happy with the results, but take the pets with you. They usually charge around $100-300.

I'll give away a secret here. Some of the recent "flea begone" treatments, applied by professionals, ARE safe. The best known flea killer lasts for weeks and is completely safe for your kids and pets. It can be applied around children and pets, but get them out of the house to keep them from under foot. I'm sure you'll agree that this secret is worth $25, so I'll wait until you've E-mailed in your pledge. After all, the exterminator is going to charge your far more, right?

OK, I'm sure the check is in the mail.

This mystic secret is borax. What? Borax? You mean I sent in 25 bucks for borax? Stick with me here. Remember, flea eggs and larvae live in your carpets and furniture for weeks before they reach "flea" stage. This is their weakness. If you can kill them in this stage, there won't be any biters, and the biters are also the breeders. Break the cycle, and you can protect your home. Pick yourself up a cheap box of 20 Mule Team borax. Dump it into a bowl and break up the lumps, and sprinkle it over your carpets. Move the furniture and sprinkle it there. Wash your bedding. Wash the dog's bedding. Sprinkle more borax on the couch, chairs, and get some sprinkled under the cushions. Work it into the carpet using a good whisk broom. Then vacuum everything, and throw away the bag. (Flea eggs can hatch in your vacuum bag.) Chances are the borax will kill fleas in the bag, but why take a chance? Borax comes from valleys like Death Valley. It's terribly dry, and it will suck the moisture out of those little vermin.

OK, you've killed the eggs. If you have patience, the borax will kill most of the blood suckers as well. But hey, we are Americans, the land of instant gratification. Who are we to spit on the founding principals of our fore fathers? We want those vermin gone today, by gawd! Now is the time to take decisive action.

While your significant other is vacuuming up the last remains of the borax, run out and pick up a few packets of bug bombs. Figure one bomb will kill 500 sq. ft of house. Look at your home's layout. If there are any restrictions add in an additional bomb. Place them on paper, covering the floor for several feet around. Those Sunday papers come in handy for something at long last. Plan your escape route. With a good plan, you should be able to hold your breath while you set off the bombs, moving from one to another without breathing any fumes.

Before the actual detonation, tape shut your cabinets, and protect open food containers. They say these things are safe but throw away anything that can't be sealed tight. If you don't want to tape the cupboards shut, wash everything inside after the "smoke" has cleared. I know people who wash everything cloth in the house after an application. Personally, I settle for washing bedding, covering the beds and hoping for the best.

Preparation takes 2 or 3 hours, which is best done the night before the big bomb. Remove all your pets and loved ones, apply the papers, and begin the big bombing. With careful planning, this becomes a memorable event, like the time you survived the big flood, and something the kids will talk about for years to come. Dad goes back into the house, risking life and limb, and sets of the "big 'ens", seeing how long he can hold his breath. No sense in taking chances.

Several hours later, return to the house. With proper planning, you have a fan set up near the door, pointing towards a convenient opening. A few quick breaths, and you can rush indoors, open a couple windows, turn on the fan, and exit without breathing. Another quick rush to open the back door giving a decent cross breeze. This is a big event for your loved ones. Your spouse and kids will be impressed at your willingness to risk your life for their safety... or at least, your Cocker will be amused by your antics. Now is the time to return, slightly red of face, with bugged eyes, and spend some quality time with your loved ones. It should be safe to enter in about an hour. Proceed with caution, sniffing for scents of "killer" pesticide still lingering.

Now you have the fun of untaping packages and cabinets, washing dishes and counters, cleaning up papers and empty spray containers, and all the tasks of returning your house to normal. I've been through this procedure 3 or 4 times, but it was with my pet birds... before I learned how to control moths that came from their foodstuff. BTW, Amazons are not as impressed by these antics as are Cocker Spaniels.


Outside

OK, the pet is clear of pests, and the house if freed from vermin. Now we take the war to where they live... outdoors. These vermin are coming from some place. They can't be coming from my house. I'm clean and these vermin must live someplace unclean.

This brings me to a pause. The outdoors is a big place. I can't possibly treat the entire outdoors, so I'll settle for my immediate surroundings. Where do I take my dogs? I've done my best to protect them from alien encounters, but have I been completely effective? Let's start by looking at the back yard, where my dogs spend much of their time. Later we can interrogate the neighbors to see if their Cocker is harboring aliens.

Ammonia is an amazing stuff. It's craved by your plants as a source of nutrition, but in concentrated force, it can kill "buggies". With this in mind, you head out to your grocery store and stock up on the cheapest liquid ammonia available. Ah, it's only $1 per gallon. A quick calculation of the back yard, and you realize you can buy 1 gallon per 500 square feet.

Pour the chemical into your sprayer, and begin passing across the lawn, spraying from side to side. It works. You can see daddy-long-legs and ants running for cover as you cross the lawn. Every square inch is covered. Nothing is missed. For the truly fanatic, another pass is made in the opposite pattern.

Actually, this does little harm to the ecosystem. Ants killed are replaced by the colony. Spiders, if killed, soon move in from neighbor's yards. It's been suggested that fleas also move in from neighbor's houses as well. I don't give this credit, or I'd be out there spraying again... and slipping an occasional spray into the neighbor's yard to make sure. Hey, I'm protecting my house from blood suckers. There's no limits.