Springtime sets the stage for return of fleas

In the Dog House with Jill

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Jill Showalter

Every day, it comes a little closer. You can feel it in the air. The trees are beginning to bud, the grass is getting greener and the birds are returning from their winter vacations. Ahhh, spring. You can feel it.

Of course, not all feels are welcome, especially if they're from fleas, who are re-emerging as the weather warms up. Since they'll be joining your dog for a little outdoor fun, it's time to consider some basic tips on dealing with spring's unwelcome guests.

The old rules don't apply when it comes to today's outdoor pests. Cold weather seems to take hold later and later each year and things start heating up sooner. The month-long cold snaps of yesterday have been replaced with a few days of freezing temperatures here and a few inches of snow there. As a result, fleas begin their life cycle earlier than before. They thrive when the humidity rate is more than 50 percent and when the temperatures crack the 50s and 60s, so there's a good chance they've already entered the neighborhood.

While there are more than 2,000 species of fleas, it's likely that your dog will encounter one of two varieties: dtenocephalides felis, which is known as the cat flea, and ctenocephalides canis, the dog flea. Unlike your college roommate, who won't stop by for a visit because she's a self-described "cat person" and gets a little nervous around your dog, cat and dog fleas claim no allegiance when it comes to their carriers. They're equal-opportunity pests. And since female fleas can only lay eggs when they're attached to a host, which in this case, is your dog, they'll be looking for a nearby warm-bodied blanket of fur.

Telltale signs

As fleas begin to re-emerge, it's important to realize that it's hard for your dog to avoid them. Fleas live in the grass and other areas of natural growth. The flea circus cartoons you grew up with may not exist, but you can be sure there's a flea-frequented spot in your dog's day-to-day life, whether it's your yard, the park or the shaggy coats of his canine companions. One thing the cartoons got right is that fleas do indeed hop. That's how they get from the grass to your dog, how they get from your dog to the neighbor's dog and how they get from the neighbor's dog to the neighbor's couch.

If you want to check your dog for fleas, look by their groin area, on their stomach and in their armpits—or any other place on their bodies that is especially warm. And don't ignore the obvious. A good sign your dog has fleas is that he's scratching more than usual. You can also take your hand and run it against the grain of your dog's fur and look for flea dirt, which is actually small black specs of dried blood and are usually found on your dog's stomach and tail.

Despite the above advice, don't wait for your dog to scratch herself silly before checking for a flea problem. Some dogs are affected differently by fleas and others may have a higher tolerance for scratching an itch, so you should be checking your dog for fleas on a regular basis.

Flea baths, while important, kill the fleas but they do nothing to kill the eggs or larvae. And if you kill the fleas and leave their offspring, you'll find your dog's coat crawling with fleas again and again, no matter how many times you bathe her.

That's why the treatment is important. Check online for reviews of the most effective flea treatments. Spot-on treatments are the most effective and are fairly easy—but a little tedious—to apply it to your dog. But the treatments work. They kill off eggs and usually last 30-45 days, and that's why spot-on treatments aren't a one-and-done thing. You'll need to re-apply the treatment as instructed, usually every 30 days, to make sure your dog stays free from fleas until the first frost sets in later this year.

While some of the flea-prevention collars sold at pet stores aren't too effective, you can find a quality collar—the gray ones—at your vet. Again, you'll need to kill the fleas and the eggs first.  

A flea collar doesn't do you or your dog any good if he already has fleas.

Fleas in the house

Another thing to consider is that once your dog has fleas, it's fairly likely that your house has fleas. You can bathe and treat a dog for fleas but if the couch she's laying on or the dog bed she rests on are housing fleas and their eggs, your dog will serve as a vehicle for a new community of fleas in no time.

If you find fleas in your house—look on your dog's bedding, on carpets, on clothing, on blankets—you should dig in for a long battle. Throw out your dog's bed and begin frequent vacuuming and steam-cleaning, which will help collect and kill fleas and eggs. Some infestations may require a flea bomb, which will require that you cover or remove many of your home's items and keep everyone away from the house for several hours, at least.

Like their owners, dogs have been waiting for months for spring to return. Once again, they'll be able to enjoy walks in the park, play fetch in the yard and take that occasional lazy nap on the back porch. Don't let fleas ruin your dog's time in the sun. A proactive approach can help you and your dog enjoy spring to its fullest.

Jill Showalter owns Yuppie Puppy and Doggie Day Play in Oak Park. She has personally tended to more than 100,000 dogs since 2007 and has shared stories and advice with numerous dog owners.

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