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How to tell your pet has fleas

Fleas are every pet owners nightmare. These pests are small, wingless brown insects that live and grow on your pet’s body. They are particularly good at jumping and are known to jump from one animal to another.

They have four life stages: egg, larvae, pupae and adult. The first three stages happen in the environment and the last, adult, are what we see on our pets. Fleas thrive by biting your pet and taking small blood meals from them.

The signs that your pet has a flea problem include the following.

• Seeing small black dots when you part the hair on your pet. This is flea dirt, otherwise known as flea poo, and is the waste product they excrete after feeding on your pet. These small black dots can also be found on your pet’s bedding or places they spend a long time laying down. If you are unsure, brush your pet’s coat and put the black spots on a wet paper towel — the black colour will change to red/brown, the colour of a flea’s blood meal.

• Seeing fleas on your pet when you look closely at their coat and skin. Fleas are about 3 millimetres long and will move with quite incredible speed when you part the coat. The most common place to find fleas is around the back end, especially at the base of the tail and body.

• Your pet will be constantly scratching or chewing at their coat. Flea bites itch and scratching can lead to further problems of self trauma and secondary infections.

Fleas are a troublesome issue for our cats and dogs, and if left uncontrolled can cause serious disease such as severe anaemia and worm burdens, not to mention the problem of trying to get rid of a flea infestation in the home!

With each meal, fleas take small amounts of blood from their hosts. In small or very young animals, such as kittens and puppies, this can result in life threatening anaemia (low blood cell count) that will need aggressive treatment to reverse. Sometimes we are unable to reverse the damage done by fleas and lose a patient, which is always heartbreaking.

Fleas can be controlled well with preventative treatment. There are so many options on the market these days. Tablets, spot-on treatment, combined flea and worm products ... the list goes on.

To fully protect your cat you are looking for a product that kills both adult fleas and their eggs. This way you effectively eliminate the life cycle. It is important to treat regularly (follow guidelines from the manufacturer or your veterinarian) to ensure there are no gaps in your treatment schedules.

Fleas are also important in the life cycle of the tapeworm. If your pet has a flea burden they are also at risk of a worm burden, so it is very important to have effective flea and worming control schedules set in place.

The bad news is, if you do find fleas on your pet it means they are also in your home. You will need to treat your home with a ‘flea bomb’. I also recommend vacuuming the whole house and hot washing all bedding. It is important to remember to remove all pets and people while you let the flea bomb off to avoid inhalant irritation.

The cost of treating a severe flea infestation far outweighs the cost of regular flea treatment. Fully eliminating an infestation when it gets into your home is challenging and not always successful without fully eliminating the life cycle of the fleas.

The easiest way to deal with fleas is through preventative measures. Set up a reminder on your phone or calendar today to remind you when your pet’s next flea treatment is due.

Dr Cori

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