A young litter of puppies and their lactating leading lady arrive at your shelter with some uninvited guests: fleas! What do you do now? Don’t fret; here are some useful tips from Chelsea Reinhard, DVM, MPH, Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Resident at Tufts University, to help protect your shelter’s dogs and cats.
Treat early and monthly
Dogs and cats can be easily treated for fleas, and prevention of infestations is key. Fleas are often easily detected on an animal by seeing the parasite on the surface of the skin. Additionally, you may find “flea dirt,” a red-black colored debris at the base of hairs. This debris is from blood being excreted by the fleas. Using a fine comb, the dirt can be collected; the dirt leaves a red residue when moistened.
You’ll want to provide flea prevention to all dogs and cats when they come into your shelter, regardless of evidence of fleas on their body. If this is not possible, at the very least, animals with live fleas and/or “flea dirt,” and young animals, should be treated. For animals who tend to be in the shelter for longer periods of time or in foster homes, procedures should be in place and maintained to treat at appropriate intervals, which is usually monthly for flea prevention products.
Identify other signs of flea infestations
Other than being a nuisance, heavy infestations can lead to itching and self-trauma, a hotbed for developing skin infections. Significant flea infestations can lead to severe anemia, especially in kittens and puppies. Seek prompt veterinary care for treatment of infections and supportive care for pale and lethargic animals with flea infestations.
Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) is a condition in some animals that is caused by a hypersensitivity reaction to the flea’s saliva. Exposure to the saliva occurs every time the flea feeds on the host’s blood. These animals may not have visible fleas or flea dirt present but should be treated with products that quickly kill adult fleas.
Recognize that fleas can transmit diseases
Fleas can carry and transmit diseases to both humans and animals. The following examples demonstrate the significant role fleas play in disease transmission and the importance of robust flea prevention and treatment regimens.
- A bite from an infected flea can transmit infectious anemia in cats.
- Fleas are an intermediate host of tapeworms. Dogs and cats can become infected with tapeworms by ingesting fleas; there have been documented cases of similar infections in children.
- Cats can be infected with bacteria from an infected flea bite and transmit cat scratch disease to humans through scratches.
- Dogs and cats can carry fleas that transmit the plague-causing bacteria.
Know the product choices
There are many products available, and choosing products for your shelter’s cats and dogs can be daunting. Flea control protocols in shelters should be designed with the help of a veterinarian with knowledge of the shelter population.
Products vary by:
- Delivery method (such as oral vs. topical medication)
- Which part of the flea life cycle they target (such as targeting larvae vs. adult fleas)
- Whether treatment for other parasites is included (such as tick protection and internal parasite treatment).
Products should be used according to their manufacturers’ labels, including use for appropriate species. Products labeled for dogs should never be used on cats. Thinking back to the puppies and their mother, remember to review labels, as some products may not be labeled for lactating animals.
So the next time uninvited guests decide to show up, don’t worry – you now know what to do!