Editor's note: The following article "Look What the Cat Dragged in" was included in the recent " Special Report: Flea Control in High-Traffic Areas" e-newsletter presented by PCT and sponsored by Zoëcon.The comprehensive report includes includes timely market updates, infographics and exclusive research about this up-and-coming market. Click here to download this e-newsletter.
When fleas infest a home, it’s usually because they hitched a ride on the resident dog or cat. If that pet spends a lot of time hanging out with the family, then the fleas have probably set up shop in the living room, family room, finished basement — wherever there’s high traffic, aka warm bodies.
The warm bodies they prefer are cats and dogs, but occasionally, a flea will attach itself to, and begin feeding on, a person. Maybe that’s why you get the call.
“We frequently get calls from people saying they think they have bed bugs, because they were bitten,” says Brandon Runyon, technical director and entomologist at Evansville, Ind.-based Swat Pest Management. “Sometimes they do have bed bugs, of course, but just as often, our technician will discover that his pant legs are covered in fleas after walking through the house. Unless the homeowner actually sees a flea, they jump to the bed bug conclusion.”
This is especially true in homes without pets: The homeowner’s first thought is almost never fleas. But pets aren’t requisite for flea infestations. Sometimes homeowners are unwittingly harboring a host raccoon, stray cat or opossum in the crawlspace, or perhaps a squirrel in the attic. And once fleas break loose in the home, any warm-blooded host will do.
Regardless of the source, your task is to eliminate the adult fleas, along with their eggs, larvae and pupae. That’s no easy feat, particularly when the pests are embedded in carpet, upholstery, and cracks and crevices. Fleas are tough adversaries, and you need to be sharp to win the fight.
Once inside the house, flea larvae can take harborage in carpets and rugs, upholstered furniture, pet bedding and resting spots, floor cracks and tile joints, and heating and cooling vents. An inspection needs to address all of these possibilities and incorporate some ingenuity.
“We might see some adult fleas, but those in the pupal and larval stages are difficult to spot,” Stoy Hedges, owner of Stoy Pest Consulting, says of these tiny parasites. “I recommend that PMPs ask homeowners to place a white paper towel in every location they know their pet likes to sleep or rest so that the technician can quickly identify potential hot spots. This goes for your outdoor inspection as well. Outdoors you will generally find fleas in shady areas — under the deck, for example, if that’s where the pet likes to rest.”
Hedges recommends looking upward during the inspection, too. Cats like to climb, so bookshelves and other high roosting spots can harbor fleas. And speaking of high spots, remember to check the attic, where squirrels, raccoons or other flea-infested animals might be taking shelter.
Andrew Taylor, technical director and entomologist at Clegg’s Termite & Pest Control in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., also recommends a thorough outdoor inspection to evaluate whether wildlife could be playing a role. He suggests examining the crawlspace, roof, soffits, chimney and building structure, and following the power lines leading into the home to detect potential entry points.
“Sometimes we put wildlife cameras out to determine whether an animal is getting into or under the house, or if a pet is simply coming into contact with that animal,” he says. “Pets can easily pick up fleas from wildlife or strays and bring them into the house.”
The Treatment Protocol that Works
Gaining control over fleas is definitely an IPM endeavor. Sanitation and pet care are important, as is applying the right mix of products. That mix generally includes an adulticide combined with an insect growth regulator, or IGR. This combination works hard to attack fleas in all four stages of development: egg, larva, pupa and adult.
“You need an IGR like methoprene to stop the fleas’ development, to inhibit the normal maturing process,” says Runyon. “As the IGR takes hold, fleas either can’t hatch or, if they do, they don’t mature into reproductive adults.”
Runyon says that Swat Pest Management gets great results from an aerosol-based product that includes an IGR and is labeled for use on carpet and upholstered furniture. As with any insecticide, it’s important to follow label instructions, paying particular attention to the recommended length of time residents should remain clear of the home.
“The general rule is that people need to stay out of the house until the product is dry to the touch,” says Hedges. “Drying time depends in part on environmental conditions, primarily temperature and humidity.”
He also advises that some areas in the house require special care during treatment. “If you find fleas in an infant’s room, you should consider alternatives to insecticides,” he says. “I’ve found that a carpet steam cleaner works fairly well to control fleas in sensitive areas like this.”
Steam or a soapy, wet sponge can be used on floor vents, too, since you would never apply insecticides there. Vacuum first to pick up as many eggs and fleas as possible prior to the steam or soap treatment, Hedges suggests.
Aquariums pose their own challenges, since certain insecticides can harm fish. “If it won’t put the fish in danger, we ask the owner to turn off the filter, and we carefully cover the tank,” Taylor shares. “If it’s a saltwater tank, which can’t be turned off, we choose natural-based products that that are safe around the fish.” Runyon says his team will go so far as to relocate the aquarium to a room that doesn’t require treatment.
The Customer’s Role
Customer collaboration is vital to eradicating fleas. Part of the technician’s job is to talk with customers to make sure they understand the critical nature of these two efforts: vacuuming frequently and having the pet treated by a vet.
Vacuuming — of carpets, rugs, vents, baseboards and furniture — is an amazingly effective weapon against fleas, because it eliminates many of the eggs, as well as some larvae and adults. “Homeowners need to vacuum daily to keep up with the egg production of the adult fleas,” says Runyon. “We emphasize this strongly, especially with repeat flea customers. We recommend that they vacuum five times a day, hoping that they might actually do it three times. They have to understand the importance of emptying and cleaning the canister every time, too. These efforts can go a long way in controlling flea populations.”
While dog and cat owners often resort to flea collars and other home remedies to treat their pets, Dr. Nancy Hinkle, professor of veterinary entomology at the University of Georgia, says that professional medical treatment is absolutely necessary. “Generally speaking, flea collars are worthless. Many are still using chemicals that we know fleas have built up resistance to, so they have very low efficacy. And on large dogs, the chemical doesn’t disperse over the entire body,” she explains. “The veterinarian can treat the dog or cat with a substance that is lethal to the adult fleas that are feeding on it. That’s the only way to ensure ridding the pet of fleas. This is a critical step in resolving the pest problem.”
Runyon concludes, “Educating the customer is one of the most important aspects of flea control. They need to understand the importance of sanitation and of engaging a vet. They also need to have peace of mind that the products you’re using won’t harm their pets or children. If you take the time to have a good conversation with them, they will be happy to do their part.”