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Utter the F word, fleas that is, around fellow pet parents, and you'll likely inspire looks of horror and heartfelt offers of sympathy. Fleas are every pet owner's worst nightmare. Why? Because these athletic, blood-sucking bugs can wreak havoc on your beloved pet and home.

Why is it so hard to keep a few fleas from erupting into hundreds and even thousands of biting parasites? The flea's complex life cycle makes an infestation difficult to ward off.

One adult female flea lays up to 50 eggs a day, and these critters hatch and reproduce exponentially in a short time. Minuscule flea eggs fall off your pet soon after a female lays them. Within the next two weeks, the eggs hatch into larvae, small caterpillar-like creatures that live off organic debris. The immature flea can remain in this stage for several days to a few weeks.

The larvae then spin a cocoon and enter the pupa stage. Once the cocoon is complete, nothing short of burning can destroy the young parasite. Adults usually emerge from their cozy covering within 14 days but can survive in the cocoon for several months until vibration, pressure, heat, noise, or carbon dioxide jolts them from their deep sleep. Many fleas wait out the winter or survive in unoccupied homes in the protective cocoon. The pupae's hardiness makes reinfestation a common problem even after youve treated your home and pet.

Once they emerge from the cocoon, adult fleas must find a warm-blooded host within a few days, or they'll die. And adults can't lay eggs without that nourishing blood meal. Once a flea finds your pet, it will live out its life happily feeding off your four-legged friend. In no time, these hungry parasites can become a persistent, itchy, and dangerous problem.

Fleas are usually more annoying than lethal, but they can spread tapeworms to your pet and other family members. (Like dogs, people have to ingest an infected flea to acquire a tapeworm.) Very small or young pets can develop anemia, a potentially life-threatening condition, because of blood loss from flea infestation. Call your veterinarian if you find fleas on a puppy younger than 12 weeks or if your adult dog suddenly acts lethargic.

Intermittent flea exposure increases your pet's risk for developing an allergic reaction called flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), especially if he's predisposed to other allergies. Studies show that about 80 percent of allergic, or atopic, dogs also develop FAD. FAD often affects dogs 3 to 6 years oldpets younger than 6 months rarely develop hypersensitivity.

Risk Factors and Detection
All pets are at risk for a flea infestation. Pets who spend time outdoors are particularly susceptible, since many adult fleas live outside and on wildlife hosts until they find a happy home on your pet. Indoor dogs are also at risk because they can pick up fleas when they go outside to exercise or eliminate.

Signs of flea infestation include the following:

  • flea feces, or pepperlike specks, in your pet's coat or on his bedding
  • flea eggs, or light-colored specks, in your pet's coat or on his bedding
  • itchy skin (scratching)
  • biting at his fur or legs
  • patchy hair loss, especially near the tail or neck
  • lethargy (especially in severe cases)
  • tiny, dark brown insects scurrying around on your pet

Prevention and Treatment
Several products kill adult fleas on your pet, while others upset the flea life cycle. Here are some common prescription products:

Program. This monthly flea preventive comes in a tablet for dogs. Program uses an insect growth inhibitor to prevent development of eggs and larvae, but it doesn't kill adult fleas.

Sentinel. This product, available only for use in dogs, contains the same active ingredient for flea prevention as Program but also includes a heartworm preventive and intestinal dewormer.

Advantage and Frontline. These topical liquid products for dogs and cats kill adult fleas, thereby disrupting the egg-laying stage. You simply apply a small amount of liquid on the skin between your pet's shoulder blades. Frontline also kills ticks.

Revolution. This topical product for dogs and cats kills adult fleas, prevents flea eggs from hatching, and treats or controls several other parasites, including heartworm.

You can purchase other flea-control products powders, sprays, collars, and dips over the counter, but veterinarian-prescribed treatment methods are safer, more effective, and easier to use.

Treating the Environment
Once fleas invade your home, you must treat both your pet and the environment. You can try environmental foggers, which release insect growth inhibitors to control eggs, larvae, and adults, but you must repeat the treatment about three weeks later to kill any newly hatched adults that beat the bomb. Never use environmental treatments on your pet.

Don't skimp on this stage! You'll only set yourself up for failure. The most effective but also the costliest option: professional exterminators. It's easy - no labor on your part and most exterminators offer a guarantee.

Treating Flea Allergy Dermatitis
FAD isn't life-threatening, but it can be very uncomfortable and itchy, causing severe biting, chewing, and licking. FAD usually manifests on the back half of the body, but some pets develop sensitivity on their front legs.

Your veterinarian can prescribe steroids to relieve the itch. Treatment often starts with an injection followed by daily tablets for a few weeks. Your veterinarian will reduce the dosage slowly to prevent adverse effects from abrupt withdrawal.

Steroid side effects include increased thirst, which means increased urine output. Occasionally pets may urinate in the house, but these side effects will decrease as the steroid dosage decreases. Call your veterinarian if you have any concerns about side effects.

Secondary skin infections can develop from excessive scratching. Your veterinarian will prescribe appropriate antibiotic therapy. Once antibiotic treatment begins and the intense itching stops, the secondary infection quickly resolves and your pet's coat grows back fairly quickly.

FAD symptoms improve with steroid treatment, but they can recur if you don't permanently eliminate fleas from your pet and home environment. Most pets who suffer flea bite anemia will recover without side effects if treated promptly. If your pet has fleas, ask your veterinarian about the risk of tapeworms.

You can avoid the hassle of treatment and discomfort and stop fleas in their tracks with an aggressive flea control program. Talk to your veterinarian about which products are right for your pet.