Best Flea Treatments for Your Dog or Cat
Your Complete Guide to Getting Rid of Fleas!
Fleas are more than an annoyance — they can affect the health of their host dog or cat. A flea’s saliva could trigger allergies, and the itching and scratching that ensues can lead to a more serious skin infection. Infected fleas can also transmit tapeworms and bacteria — including bacteria that are harmful to humans. A large enough number of fleas can even cause life-threatening blood loss.
Unfortunately, fleas are not a problem that will go away on its own. In fact, ignoring a few fleas can quickly lead to an infestation. Female fleas can lay up to 50 eggs a day, many of which fall off and land in carpets, bedding and furniture. Once the larvae hatch, they remain inactive in cocoons for weeks or even months. Unsuspecting pet owners might think the problem is resolved after killing the adult fleas, but the life cycle will repeat weeks later unless eggs and larvae are prevented from maturing into adult fleas. Experts say the most effective way to keep fleas off a dog or cat is with a topical or oral medication.
If fleas are bugging your dog or cat, topical treatments like Advantage and Frontline can provide long lasting relief. I also found some great oral medications, and even a flea collar that’s safe and effective. There are other alternatives, too, but most generally are ineffective at best, and possibly hazardous at worst.
But before we go any further, be sure its fleas –
Not all scratching indicates dog fleas. Scratching of the ears may indicate ear mites or another ear infection. Scratching or licking other parts of your pet’s body may indicate a food allergy, or other irritation.
Fleas are about half the size of an apple seed, but may be as large as the size of a grain of rice. They’re jumping insects, with laterally flat bodies, and they have no wings. If you don’t see actual fleas, look for flea poop. Flea waste may collect on the skin of your pet, and will look like tiny crumbles of dirt.
What to Look For in a Flea Treatment
- Works quickly and reliably. The best flea treatments should work quickly enough that your pet will find relief within a short period of time. If the first one you try doesn’t work, try something else.
- Kills adult fleas, eggs and larvae. Some medications and treatments kill adult fleas only, so you may need to re-treat fairly often, or combine them with a second flea treatment to avoid re-infestation.
- Causes few side effects. Most flea treatments have potential side effects, though those are mostly minor. However, others could be life threatening to certain animals. Cat owners in particular should avoid products containing permethrin and other pyrethroids.
- Is easy to use. “Spot-on” topical treatments are quick to apply to a pet’s neck or back, while tablets can often be tucked into a treat like cheese or peanut butter.
Topical Flea Treatment
Also known as spot-on products, topical treatments are squeezed out of a tube and applied to the pet’s neck or back. One advantage of these products is that they generally contain insect growth regulators (IGRs), which prevent eggs from hatching and larvae from maturing into adult fleas. This means that a single application can completely eliminate fleas for up to a month.
However, these products have drawbacks as well. Although they’re generally safe for pets if applied correctly, they can irritate the skin or eyes of humans; should you come in contact with the product, it must be rinsed off promptly. Once applied, the product may take several hours to dry. During this time, it may rinse off in water, and the residue may transfer to other pets, furniture or humans. Moreover, some pet owners find the smell or feel of the spot-on treatments unpleasant.
Until recently, experts have said that flea collars are generally ineffective; some are toxic to pets and people as well. There is one exception, however, Seresto, which uses the same active ingredient as a well-rated topical treatment, Advantage, but in a slow-release formulation.
Seresto also has a tick killing ingredient. Seresto is pricey, so other options are more cost effective if you pet is indoors most or all of the time, but for pets that spend lots of time out of doors, it can make sense. No other flea collar receives much, if any, positive feedback from pet experts.
Oral Flea Medications
Flea control medications such as Capstar, pose no risk to humans, and they don’t leave any messy residue. Oral flea treatments tend to kill adult fleas very quickly, but most of them don’t contain an IGR to deal with the eggs and larvae. This means that pet owners must either combine the tablet with a second treatment that contains an IGR, such as a spot-on product, or keep repeating the dose until no new fleas are hatching. Another problem is getting a pet to take the pill.
While some users say their pets will gobble them happily if they’re tucked inside a treat, others — especially cat owners — find it very difficult to get them down their pets’ throats. Also, some oral medications are available only with a prescription from a vet.
Alternative Flea Treatments
Flea shampoos can provide immediate relief by killing adult fleas on the pet, but they don’t leave enough residue behind to kill new fleas as they hatch. As for flea dips, bombs, powders and sprays, many of them contain chemicals called pyrethroids, such as permethrin. Experts warn that these chemicals are highly toxic, especially to cats. Some vets say that products containing permethrin can be safe if you only have dogs in your household, but all warn to not use such products on cats or even on dogs if one is likely to come in contact with a cat. Permethrin comes in for the sternest cautions, but some experts also warn against the use of other pyrethroids as well.
Natural remedies are more controversial. I see lots of recommendations for them around the Internet, however, there’s little scientific evidence that they are effective in most cases. In a recent blog post, Nancy Kearns of The Whole Dog Journal says that she’s “never had much luck with the plethora of natural remedies out there.” And some natural remedies are rated to be just as toxic according the GreenPaws Flea and Tick Products Directory published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, and in some cases more so, than many of the topical and oral treatments recommended in this report
Shopping for a Flea Treatment
Talk to your vet first.
Your vet may have specific recommendations for products he or she thinks are the most appropriate. This is especially important in the case of pets that are weak, older, medicated, sick, pregnant or nursing, or that have previously had an adverse reaction to a flea control treatment. Additionally, some products are not suitable for puppies and kittens.
Check your pet’s weight.
All flea control treatments are packaged according to the pet’s weight. Don’t try to guess your pet’s weight or buy the wrong dosage because it’s cheaper. You might end up with a dosage that’s too low to kill the fleas or, worse, one that’s too high and causes serious side effects.
Read the directions.
Before you buy a product, take a look at the application instructions and make sure you understand them. Even if you have used the product before, review the directions to make sure they haven’t changed. Many reported illnesses in cats and dogs from flea control products are due to misuse. Lack of effectiveness is also often the result of improper application. Be especially careful not to use flea control treatments designed for dogs on your cat, or vice versa. Permethrin, a pesticide found in some topical dog treatments, can be lethal to cats.
Choose the right treatments.
Don’t waste your time with flea shampoos, dips, sprays or powders. Vets generally agree that these products are ineffective at best and toxic at worst. The same goes for “natural” remedies like essential oils and garlic, some of which are no less toxic than the most effective flea control products per the ratings at the GreenPaws Flea and Tick Products Directory.
Buy your flea remedies from your vet or from a reputable retailer.
Many products sold online, and sometimes even in stores, are counterfeits that may be ineffective or harmful to pets. Counterfeit versions of Frontline Plus are particularly common.
Are generics safe?
Frontline and Frontline Plus topical treatments, and Capstar oral medication, are available in generic formulas at savings ranging from a little to a lot. Experts say to avoid the cheapest generics as they likely won’t provide the same level of protection as better options. Also, though they might use the same active ingredients, the inert ingredients may differ, and that can be the difference between a treatment your pet tolerates well, and one that might irritate. Consult with your vet if you are unsure of any flea treatment.
Be wary of new products.
That’s the advice of The Whole Dog Journal, which adds that you shouldn’t feel pressured to change if a flea treatment that you’ve been using is continuing to work well. In addition, newer flea treatments have been subjected to less “real world” testing, which can often reveal shortcomings or hazards that lab testing fails to turn up. “We suggest that pet owners stick with older products until the safety of new ones has been established,” says Nancy Kerns, editor of The Whole Dog Journal.
If you don’t see it, ask.
Pet stores may not keep all their flea remedies on the same shelf. Some of them may be locked up in a separate case to prevent theft. If you don’t see the one you want, ask an employee where to find it.
Treat the whole house.
Money spent on a flea treatment is wasted if you don’t get the fleas out of your house. Vacuum carpets and upholstery daily, and discard the vacuum bag (outside the house) right away so fleas don’t escape. Also, wash bedding, and wipe floors and furniture.
Keep your eyes open.
After treatment, monitor your pet for any signs of a harmful reaction. Be prepared to contact your vet if necessary. Also keep an eye out for fleas that survive the treatment – a nit comb is very useful for checking your pet for any remaining fleas.
Some products can be re-administrated right away while others should not be. Follow manufacturer instructions to the letter and talk to your vet about additional treatment.
As the name suggests, a flea comb is a grooming tool used to comb through your pet’s fur. But unlike regular combs, the teeth of a flea comb are very finely spaced allowing the comb to physically trap and remove fleas, flea eggs and flea “dirt” from your pet’s fur. The tightly-spaced teeth on the comb are also useful for picking up and removing dander, dirt, and other debris from your pet’s fur.
Even if you don’t think your pet has fleas, using a flea comb periodically can help you identify fleas before they become a more difficult to treat problem.
Know what to expect.
Some flea treatments work almost immediately, some take a day or more for effects to be seen. Frontline and Frontline Plus work by over stimulating a flea’s nervous system, something that’s often mistaken for an increase in fleas or an adverse reaction (caused by a short-term uptick in flea bites) by anxious pet owners.
Flea Treatment Recommendations
The top two topical flea treatments for both dogs and cats are Advantage II and Frontline Plus. They use different active ingredients, imidacloprid and fipronil, respectively, to eradicate infestations. The two insecticides work differently, but experts say that when used correctly, they are both safe and effective.
Both products receive mostly positive reviews from veterinarians and pet owners, but we found somewhat stronger recommendations for Advantage II. Cat owners, in particular, tend to give Advantage II for Cats high marks for its effectiveness, safety and ease of use. While it does not work for every cat, it’s more consistently effective than any other topical treatment. Most owners also find it easy to apply and are not bothered by the odor.
Advantage II for Dogs is sold in several different dosages, for small, medium, large and extra-large dogs; as you might expect, versions for larger dogs cost a little more than those for smaller ones. Dog owners are not quite as enthusiastic about Advantage II as cat owners. Although most owners find it effective, dog owners were more likely than cat owners to complain that Advantage II either didn’t work or stopped working before the one-month treatment period was up. Veterinarian dermatologist Jon Plant, writing at the Itchy Dog Blog, notes a study, albeit in cats, that shows some drop in effectiveness toward the end of a month. He adds that “the Advantage line of products are generally very effective for flea control in most situations, when used as directed (monthly).”
Bayer (the maker of Advantage II) also offers Advantage Multi, which is offered by prescription only and in formulations for dogs and cats. It adds additional protections against hookworms, round worms and other parasites (depending on the species). However, it is not an all life cycle flea killer and is only effective on adult fleas, not flea eggs and larvae. The cat version is the only product that’s also FDA approved for use on ferrets (minimum weight of 2 pounds). One disadvantage to products in the Advantage line is that they don’t protect against ticks. If that’s a concern, a different product could be a better choice.
Frontline Plus, like Advantage II, is a reformulated version of an older product. The original Frontline killed adult fleas, as well as lice and ticks. The new version, Frontline Plus, also contains an IGR to kill fleas at every stage of their life cycle. It continues to protect against ticks and chewing lice as well, something that Advantage II can’t do.
Frontline Plus gets high marks for safety from both vets and pet owners.
Frontline works by over-stimulating a flea’s nervous system, making them hyperactive before they die. That can make it look like your pet’s flea infestation is actually getting worse as fleas that were previously unseen rise to the top of its coat, and that results in some negative feedback in user reviews, but vets have few reservations. Dr. Plant notes that Frontline Plus is “100% effective at 12 and 24 hours from 1 day to 28 days post treatment.”
There have been some reports, such as this article in The New York Times, indicating that, while fleas in a few parts of the country have become more resistant to fipronil (the active ingredient in Frontline), it and other treatments are still largely still effective in most regions. That’s echoed in comments by Dr. Thomas B. McMillen at the Mercy Animal Hospital in Cranston, R.I., who says “There have apparently been some resistance problems in Florida, but there is no evidence of that around here.” In a study published in Parasites & Vectors, a scientific journal, researchers Tad Coles and Michael Dryden find that reports of resistance to flea treatments is more likely to be caused by improper or insufficient application rather than resistance to the product by the fleas or other pests themselves.
Because the patent for fipronil has expired, generic versions of Frontline Plus are now available. Examples include Pet Armor Plus for Dogs and Sentry Fiproguard Plus for Dogs. Formulations for cats are also available, as are generic versions of the original Frontline, designed to kill adult fleas but not eggs or larvae.
Experts do sound some cautions, however. While the active ingredients are the same, inactive ingredients can differ. The Whole Dog Journal specifically recommends against using low-budget spot on treatments as they can be more toxic and less effective than those “made by the most reputable and responsible manufacturers.” Still, some vets and other experts consider generic versions of Frontline to be a reasonable alternative where budgets are a concern. If you are considering a generic version of Frontline or Frontline Plus, the best guidance would be to ask your vet. Finally, choose your vendor wisely as counterfeit versions of Frontline Plus have also been reported.
For dog owners who want to control both fleas and ticks, another option is K9 Advantix II
One Flea Collar to Try
In general, flea collars get a thumbs down from experts as being both ineffective and often toxic. One that breaks from the pack, however, is the Seresto Flea and Tick Collar.
This is another product that uses the same active ingredient as Advantage, and is made by the same company, but in a gradual release format that keeps pets pest free for eight months. There’s no IGR, but one’s not needed as the active ingredient is constantly killing fleas as they emerge. Seresto collars also have a tick-killing component, flumethrin, so they are a great choice for animals that spend a lot of time outdoors.
Vet feedback thus far has been largely positive, and the Seresto flea collar receives lots of user feedback at sites like Amazon.com, most of which has been very good. In a blog post, Nancy Kearns of The Whole Dog Journal reports using Seresto to keep her dogs flea free after an outbreak had been eradicated. “So far, so good; I haven’t spotted any fleas, and you can believe I’ve been looking,” she writes. Dr. Plant notes that it kills 100 percent of existing fleas on dogs within 24 hours, and re-infesting fleas in two hours. It’s also 98 percent effective on cats within 6 hours. One caution that he shares is that while the collar is rated to be effective for eight months, frequent swimming or bathing can reduce that duration.
Adverse reactions seem to be relatively rare. However, since this flea collar uses the same active ingredient as Advantage, if your pet has not done well with Advantage, Seresto also won’t be a good choice. Some complaints are seen about the cost, a concern that Kearns echoes as well, especially for those with multiple pets, but keep in mind that a single collar is the equivalent of eight monthly does of Advantage. Versions are available for both dogs and cats.
Treat the Environment
Indoor flea control involves mechanically removing all stages of the fleas, killing any remaining adults, and preventing immature forms from developing.
Start by vacuuming thoroughly, especially below drapes, under furniture edges, and where your pet sleeps. It is estimated that vacuuming can remove up to 50% of flea eggs. Vacuum daily in high traffic areas, weekly in others. Each time, seal your vacuum bag in a plastic bag and discard it immediately. Do NOT place mothballs or flea collars in the vacuum, since toxic fumes could result.
Use a product that will kill any remaining adult fleas and also stop the development of eggs and larvae. You will need a product that contains both an adulticide and an insect growth regulator (IGR), such as Nylar (pyriproxyfen) or methoprene. This can be in the form of carpet powders, foggers, or sprays.
Foggers are especially good for large open areas. Surface sprays can reach areas such as baseboards, moldings, cracks, and under furniture where foggers cannot reach. Choose the product(s) you use with care, taking into account the presence of children, fish, birds, persons with asthma, etc. Your veterinarian can help you choose the appropriate products for your situation. In severe infestations, you may need the help of a professional exterminator.
Wash your pet’s bedding weekly and treat the bed and surrounding area with a product that contains both an adulticide and an insect growth regulator.
Do not forget to also clean and treat your automobile, pet carrier, garage, basement, or any other place your pet spends much time.
Flea control in the outdoor environment generally involves eliminating the habitat in the yard and kennel areas where fleas are most likely to occur. Fleas tend to like it where it is moist, warm, shady, and where there is organic debris. They will also tend to be where pets spend more of their outdoor time. So be sure to concentrate on areas such as patios, under porches, dog houses, etc.
Rake away any organic debris such as leaves, straw, grass clippings, etc., to disturb flea habitat.
Wild animals such as opossums, raccoons, chipmunks and other small rodents can carry fleas. Try to discourage these animals from entering your yard, e.g., do not feed them.
Keep in mind that until all of the fleas in your home have died, you will probably still see some fleas, even on a treated pet, since some immature forms may continue to develop. This is especially true if you had a big flea problem to start with. Persistence is the key here. It is essential to keep following an effective flea control program for a long enough time to get rid of all of the fleas, in all life stages. This may take several weeks to 6 months or more, depending on your particular situation.
Thanks for visiting and reading … I hope this article provided you some helpful ideas. I welcome your comments below.
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