For Pet Owners, It's Open Season On Fleas

July 02, 1994|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Sun Staff Writer

We hate them. Our pets hate them. In fact, some animals literally go bald trying to scratch the disgusting little creatures away. And, as menacing as Jason but multiplied a million times, they're baaaa-aaaack. Fleas just love this hot humid weather.

The bad news: Fleas want your pet's blood and they want it bad. And these irritating insects reproduce like crazy. After every feast on your pet's blood, a female flea lays four to eight eggs, says Dr. Richard Kramer, an entomologist with the National Pest Control Association.

And for each one flea you spot on your animal, there are between 90 and 100 in your environment, says Dr. Ken Volk, a veterinarian at Lutherville Animal Hospital.

Even worse news: Lacking an animal's blood to suck on, fleas go after yours.

The good news: The presence in our homes of these icky parasites is not a given. With education, pest-control products, persistence and a plan, pet owners have a fighting chance. Others just fight -- over whether to use chemical or natural flea control products.

Chris Jackson has four dogs, six cats, breeds Dalamations and owns the Long Last Kennel in Owings Mills. She says fleas are not a problem for her. Now, if Ms. Jackson can live a flea-free life, there's got to be hope for the rest of us.

Ms. Jackson is amazed how some people calmly accept fleas as a necessary fact of life. "It is not inevitable," she says. "You do not have to have fleas."

OK, so fleas don't have to be a part of your life. But how do you keep them off of your pet -- or get rid of them if a flea colony has taken up residence in your home? Well, there's a good deal of debate about the best way to prevent and get rid of fleas.

Here are three things everyone agrees on: Vacuum at least weekly or preferably daily. The pet's entire environment must be treated (at the same time the animal is treated) or you're wasting time, effort and money. And each pet in the home must be treated, although it may seem that only one animal is affected.

That's where the agreement ends, because people have quite passionate and widely varying opinions on whether natural or chemical remedies should be used for flea control.

Brewer's yeast and garlic

"I'm a great believer in natural remedies," Ms. Jackson says.

"Many people, and I am one, swear by the brewer's yeast and garlic remedy. My feeling is that if it doesn't work, at least it doesn't hurt. Everyone (the four dogs and six cats) goes on the brewer's yeast and garlic this time of year," she says.

The other natural "insect repellent" some people, including Ms. Jackson, swear by is not really meant to be a repellent at all. It's Avon's "Skin So Soft" moisture oil.

"Skin So Soft works. And it has nothing in it that will harm your children, your pets or yourself," Ms. Jackson says.

For Ms. Jackson, the only drawback to using Skin So Soft is it clings to wherever the pet goes. "You have a home that smells a little bit like a bordello!" she jokes.

People at Avon issue a standard "no comment" when questioned about their product's being used as flea control. "For 30 years, we have heard about its being used all kinds of ways," says Alix Mendes, public relations manager at Avon Products Inc. However, Skin So Soft is marketed for humans, she says.

Other pet owners say ultrasonic flea collars that emit vibrating sounds keep fleas at bay. And a plethora of "natural" sprays, shampoos and powders can be found at pet stores. But most veterinarians and researchers don't buy the supposed efficacy of any of these natural products.

"There is no scientific research saying that Skin So Soft works," says Dr. Kent Roberts, a veterinary professor at Virginia/Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. "The brewer's yeast -- no value. The garlic -- same. And those electronic flea collars are totally useless," he says.

Yet, Dr. Susanne Felser, a veterinarian at Finksburg Veterinarian Center, has clients who swear by natural flea control methods.

If it works, use it

Dr. Felser isn't sure if any of the unconventional methods are what's keeping fleas away, but she doesn't discourage their use. "If you find something that works for you, then stick with it," Dr. Felser says. "At least those products are natural."

But for Dr. Roberts, there's only one sure-fire method of flea prevention and eradication. "The chemicals are, unfortunately, the only way to go," the veterinary professor says.

People shouldn't worry about their pets having adverse reactions to chemical products, says Dr. Volk, the Lutherville veterinarian.

"The products are well-tested," he says. "People should follow the directions and don't overdo it," he adds.

But being well-tested doesn't necessarily mean all of the products are effective.

"In order to market flea control products, a company need only show their product is safe for use," he says. "Because only marginal effectiveness has to be demonstrated, there are many poor flea control products available."

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