To win the war on fleas, don't settle for inferior OTC weapons

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Dogs

A resident's pet dog, wearing a Brazil football jersey, stands near neighbours watching the 2014 World Cup soccer match between Uruguay and Italy on a television set outside their homes in an alley decorated with flags of the 2014 World Cup teams, in Hamrun, outside Valletta, June 24, 2014. (DARRIN ZAMMIT LUPI / REUTERS / June 24, 2014)

Instead of the mantra being, "Never say die," it ought to be, "Always says die."

"We can win the flea war, and we need to," says veterinary parasitologist Dr. Michael Dryden, professor of Veterinary Parasitology in the Department of Diagnostic Medicine and Pathobiology at Kansas State University-Manhattan.

"Let's face it, these are blood-sucking parasites. Obviously, that's not a good thing for our pets, or for us," he says. "After all, fleas will bite us, too."

Fleas are the culprit responsible for various types of a bacterium called Bartonella, which may impact pet health, but they also can transmit serious infection to people. Fleas can also carry tapeworm, to which both people and pets are susceptible.

More than merely annoying is the allergic response a pet can have after just one flea bite, let alone when dogs and cats suffer dozens of bites. Because they're uncomfortable, the pets scratch, and infections may follow. When young animals are overwhelmed by flea bites, resulting anemia can even be life-threatening.

According to Dryden, there's only one upside of keeping fleas on the planet: "As long as there are fleas, I have job security," he notes with a laugh.

There are two general classifications of flea-killing products: 1) Spot-on products administered by pet owners along the backs of dogs and cats, and 2) chewables.

"Obviously, for cats, spot-on products may be the best solution," says Dryden. "Once a cat makes up his or her mind not to take a pill, it's hard to argue."

Another advantage of using a spot on is knowing you've administered the product. Some pet owners find a treasure trove of chewables spit out behind a sofa. Some pets even throw up after swallowing chewables.

For dogs, in particular, chewables that taste like liver or beef are happily scarfed down. Going this route is also easier than dealing with the trick y packaging for spot-on products.

"Listen, there are great products that are chewable, and terrific spot-on products, as well," says Dryden. "A lot is merely individual owner and pet preference."

Some products also protect against ticks and intestinal parasites, even heartworm. Your veterinarian knows which choice make the most sense for your pet.

Dryden, who's often called Dr. Flea, adds, "What's most important is where you purchase these products. In my opinion, I see no difference between purchasing a flea product and an antibiotic, heartworm preventative, or a medication, say, for heart disease. The EPA may disagree, but I don't believe flea and ticks products should be sold over-the-counter.

"When consumers make the wrong choices -- which happens frequently -- their pets suffer," he continues. "Seeing your veterinarian for the right flea and tick products is in the best interest of your pet." While you're there, ask the vet about residual speed of kill.

"This is the most important advance we've made in a long time," says Dryden. The most effective products kill fleas in two ways, he explains. The first important factor is initial speed of kill. The product initially provides relief by killing existing fleas fast. Residual speed of kill is important days and weeks later. When fleas hatch in your carpeting, or come from outdoors and hop onto a pet, they get a terminal knock-out punch.

"New compounds provide more residual potency, killing newly-hatched fleas and deterring egg production," Dryden adds. "Also, important is cutting down on how long fleas feed to lessen the effects of flea allergies."

Some pet owners living in the southern U.S., especially in places like Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana, have suggested fleas have built up a resistance to some newer products.

"Yes, perhaps in isolated areas, but there's no evidence of any widespread resistance," Dryden says. "Besides, the answer is simple. If you're concerned about one product not working, or if that's your experience with a product, then see your veterinarian, who can simply suggest another product."

Dryden says many products available over-the-counter may simply not work. For example, people may like to see marketing tags like "all natural" on packaging, but Dryden's not sure what the term even means. He and colleagues have tested several over-the-counter products and "They just don't function all that well to stop fleas," Dryden says.

His final words: "Listen to your veterinarian, and you will prevent fleas."

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

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