By Tim Ryan
Photos by Craig T. Kojima
Why? Stray cats wandering into your yard or on your deck bring the little buggers right to you. Dogs walking by your home can also pass along the little blood suckers.
Of the nine species of fleas in Hawaii only one, the cat flea, is a major nuisance to people. Yes, despite its name, the cat flea also infests dogs.
The good news? Several new products on the market and some improved old ones can just about eliminate all of the critters infesting your domain - if you follow an organized plan of action.
So far, 1996 hasn't been a banner year for flea and tick infestations on Oahu, state health officials say.
"But it always gets worse in the summer months when it's real warm because that's when fleas reproduce more quickly," said George Kitaguchi, state entomologist.
So how do you know if you have a flea problem?
Hey, if Fido or Morris suddenly start acting as if they've been attacked by poltergeists you've got it. Are your ankles dotted with bites. Well, it's time to wake up and smell the flea dip, room fogger, yard spray, or any number of methods on which Americans spend about $900 million a year to try to live flea-free.
But before you take any steps remember the three T's: treat the pet, treat the house, treat the yard. Not doing any of these can lead to recurring flea problems.
Several products kill fleas on pets almost on contact, including shampoos, powders and sprays, while mousses, flea foams, and flea creme rinse products tend to have some residual effect.
Flea dips, usually used as pour-on products, have a slightly longer residual effect and are usually pretty toxic.
In the past, much of flea control money was spent on pungent chemical concoctions, like foggers that killed fleas but also required a temporary evacuation of the house. Today, the focus is on more friendly methods involving what's called "insect growth regulators," or IGRs.
Veterinarian's Best carpet crystals, left; DeLime'Inator by Hansen's, right.
But now even the "new" foggers, like the two-pack Flea Science, $11, contain IGRs which makes the product longer lasting and prevents fleas from developing through its various growth stages," said Dan McDougal, Pet Discount Warehouse owner.
One of the latest weapons in the arsenal against fleas are flea pills like Program, a once-a-month dog pill that contains lufenuron, an IGR. Another plus for Program is that it can be administered when other medications are being used, like heartworm pills.
There also is Proban with cythioate, an organic phosphorus drug that kills adult fleas that bite a treated dog. It's even available in liquid form and some veterinarians prescribe it for cats. All the flea pill preventions must be obtained through a vet.
The problem with treatments that rely solely on IGRs is that the effect may not help your pet for several weeks. There isn't an instant kill. And since the pill
doesn't affect adult fleas it's important to start the pill before the flea season or to treat for adult fleas with other chemicals first.
Perhaps the biggest breakthrough and one receiving wider acceptance are the non-toxic borate acid products in powder form available from veterinarians, pet stores or pest control businesses like Flea Busters.
"By far, the most popular treatment and best solution for fleas are the carpet powders," said McDougal, who has rid his home and five dogs with annual use of the powder.
These modified forms of borax are a non-toxic material that adheres to the outer skeleton of the flea or tick and dehydrates them when they feed on the powder. Their digestive and absorption systems become blocked.
Veterinarian's Best, $32, comes in a clear crystal form that's good for all color carpets. Hansen's carpet powder, $6.25, like many other of the powders, comes in white.
The powder is sprinkled on the carpet, then worked in with a stiff broom or a rake. Vacuum it up a couple days later along with the remains of fleas and eggs. Flea Busters uses a patented formulated borate powder not available over the counter and a special machine to drive the stuff deep into the carpet. Their fee varies depending on the size of the homes but starts at about $90.
Powder manufacturers and pest control companies guaranteed your home will remain flealess for a year.
Hansen's powder also contains a citrus peel extract - "De-Lime"Inator - that kills fleas on contact, eliminating the three-day wait for relief.
But the powder isn't for hardwood floors. For this you need to use a spray - like Flea Science, $17.99 - in baseboards and cracks where fleas are likely to lurk.
What about the old standby flea collar? They may be "the least effective method" to rid your pet of fleas and dangerous to some pets allergic to the chemicals, McDougal said.
"They put out an insecticide vapor like a fly strip that lays on the dog's flesh," he said.
Herbal flea collars act as repellents but do not kill fleas or prevent them from biting.
What about ticks? There are only two tick species in Hawaii: the spinose ear tick found on cattle, dogs, and cats, and the brown dog tick.
The Tick Arrest collar, about $6.50, uses the chemical Amitraz that travels on the natural oil of the dog's fur rather than the animal's flesh. When the tick bites the dog, it paralyzes the tick's mouth part so when it's removed the head comes out, preventing any skin irritations. Tick Arrest has no affect on fleas.
If you'd rather not give your pet a flea dip, Natura makes a flea and tick roll-on, $4, that you use just like a roll-on deodorant.
As for the yard, remember that flea eggs fall off wherever the pet does things that can dislodge them: jumping around, sitting, scratching. And if these areas are warm and moist during the day, you can bet fleas are reproducing there.
Treat the outside with a yard spray specifically made for this purpose, like Natura Yard and Kennel Spray, $13. It's not necessary to treat large expanses of lawn that dry out during the day because fleas won't be there. Concentrate instead on those areas where the animal spends time: around the doors in and out of the house, where your dog or cat is likely to be waiting for you, along the foundation of the house.
Once you get rid of those pesky fleas, there are a few things you should do to keep them under control:
Vacuum frequently to stay ahead of the flea egg population in carpets and between sofa cushions.
Put mothballs in your vacuum cleaner bag to poison the fleas, then immediately throw the bag into an outside trash container.
Always wash pet bedding.
For a chemical-free approach, use a flea comb with fine teeth to search pet fur. Flick the little bodies into a bowl of sudsy water or an ammonia mixture.
If you're inclined to use a fogger, it's very important to read the directions, and figure out the square footage you're attempting to treat. Foggers generally are ineffective unless one is placed in each room, so small size foggers may be the most economical approach.
There are many products on the market to ward off fleas.
Fleas are pretty amazing little bugs. And at least a basic understanding of the life cycle of the flea is necessary in order to control the suckers.
The flea has several stages to its life cycle.
When a flea jumps onto a pet, it typically stays for a month - which basically is a lifetime of laying eggs and feeding on blood, laying as many as 50 eggs a day - several hundred eggs over its lifespan - while ingesting about 15 times its body weight in blood.
Adult fleas spend most of their time on a dog or cat and must be dislodged because they won't leave voluntarily. And when the flea population on the dog becomes excessive - too many fleas and not enough prime sucking spots - humans become an acceptable feeding alternative.The smooth and slick flea eggs easily roll off pet fur and onto the couch, carpet or wherever a cat or dog spends most of its time.
The eggs, which are so small they can even develop in the cracks in wood floors or any small crevice, look like grains of salt and hatch into wiggling, legless larvae within 12 days.
The larvae feed on adult flea fecal matter - tiny black flecks that look like pepper but are actually bits of dried blood. Under optimum conditions, larvae will begin to spin cocoons and turn into pupae within eight to 24 days. Then - bingo - blood-hungry fleas emerge in five to seven days.
And if that isn't enough, larvae can survive for as long as 200 days and pupae up to a year, in case they have to wait for a delicious host to come along.
It's been estimated that for every adult flea found on the pet, there are about 10 developing fleas in the pet's environment.
Fleas prefer temperatures of 65 to 80 degrees and humidity of 75 to 85 per cent. So lucky you live Hawaii!