A mild winter and a wet spring have allowed fleas to proliferate, leaving dogs scratching and veterinarians busy.
Staff members at the Pet Medical Center of Edmond have seen an upswing in pets with infestations.
“Last year the drought was the major player in why we weren't seeing big flea populations,” said Richard Hufnagel, one of the veterinarians. “They like moisture.”
This year, Oklahoma had its warmest January through April on record with a statewide average temperature of 52.3 degrees, which was 5.5 degrees above normal. The state had 12.44 inches of precipitation through April, which ranked as the 14th wettest January through April, on record. That was 2.76 inches above normal.
“This year is more conducive to those eggs hatching out because of the relatively wet year we're having,” Hufnagel said.
Fleas feed on the blood of dogs and cats.
An earlier start
Susan Little, a regents professor at the Center for Veterinary Health Sciences at Oklahoma State University, said not only are there more fleas this year, but they came earlier.
Generally the peak of flea activity is late summer, early fall. That's because there is active flea reproduction through the summer months.
But there was apparently reproduction through the winter months in 2011-2012. She believes that because veterinarians have told her there has been really high activity this year in the spring, which is unusual.
Little said that some dog and cat owners do not use flea control in the winter.
“And so I think what may have happened is they slacked off flea control and the fleas did just fine because it was not as dry and not as cold as it normally is,” she said.
Little serves on the executive board of the Companion Animal Parasite Council and they recommend year-round use of flea control on dogs and cats. She said veterinarians have told her they have also seen more ticks this year.
“So we recommend not stopping in the winter, for just this reason,” she said.
More than one issue
Infested pets can develop local skin irritation and a hyper-allergic reaction.
Also, if there are enough fleas, they'll suck so much blood that the animal becomes anemic, Hufnagel said. Fleas also are associated with tapeworms, a gastrointestinal parasite.
“At least around here, most tapeworms use the flea as their intermediate host,” Hufnagel said. “So that animal with a tapeworm infestation, they got it because they were eating fleas.”
In its life-cycle, the adult flea lays eggs. The eggs hatch into little larvae (maggots). Those feed on the blood in the feces the adult has deposited, Hufnagel said. Then those larvae will form pupae (cocoons) and finally they hatch out into adult fleas.
There are two basic types of treatments for dogs: topicals and oral products. Cats can also be given topicals and oral products, but also have an injectable option.
The topical or oral treatment for adult fleas may be over-the-counter or it may be prescription, depending on the specific product needed.
Areas of concern
The primary area of concern is where a dog or cat sleeps.
“So if they're sleeping in your bed, that's where you find the eggs and the maggots,” he said. “If they're behind the couch, that's where you find it.”
Outdoors, open areas of the lawn exposed to continuous sunlight will not support significant flea development, but shady, moist areas will, said Justin Talley, Oklahoma State University entomologist. Hot-spots outside include dog houses, flower beds, gardens, under decks and under porches.
“Basically any location out of direct sunlight where the pet spends time, the shady areas,” Talley said. “Also limit access of wildlife to pet dwelling areas.”
Hufnagel said the best way to prevent and manage an active flea outbreak is by putting good flea control products on your pet.
That's because adult fleas usually find an animal and remain on it. If they were to try to jump to another animal and missed, they would likely die, he said.
“They don't prefer to be on us,” Hufnagel said. “They won't live on us.”