Flea fight: How to survive ‘flea season’

Fur plastered the sides of my bathtub last evening. Orange fur from cat Bo; grey from cat Arrow; and black and white from dog Oreo. Sodden towels covered the floor. And somewhere in the house, three disgruntled pets were shaking water from their clean coats. With any luck, they were free of fleas. But I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

About a week ago, fleas infested my house.

Oreo in the flea bath.

Oreo in the flea bath.

“This time of year, fleas have a tendency to build up because they actually can be outside,” said Jim Dill, pest management specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “Even if you treat your animals and everything else, if they’re outside animals, they can pick them up.”

So we can blame this recent predicament on Oreo the dog, since my house cats aren’t allowed outdoors.

“Outside, during warm weather like we’ve been having, eggs drop off animals and hatch, then the larvae build cocoons and sit there until there’s a vibration,” Dill explained. “So even if you went away for a month and all the sudden the dog is back outside and running around, that vibration will set off the fleas to emerge as an adults. All the sudden, you have fleas in your backyard, jumping on your dog.”

According to Dill, three steps will typically take care of a flea infestation:

Courtesy of James Dill An adult flea.

Courtesy of James Dill
An adult flea.

1. Treat your animals with flea killers, such as formulas, shampoos or collars. Be sure to read the instructions carefully.

2. Put on long white tube socks and walk around your house with a bowl of water mixed with detergent. When fleas jump on your socks, pluck them off and drown them in the water. (The detergent breaks the surface tension, making it easier to drown the flea.) Do this through every room and keep track of which room has the most fleas. This helps you concentrate on areas that need the most attention.

3. Clean your home. Clean all bedding, including your cat and/or dog bedding. And if the infestation is especially bad, go to your veterinarian and purchase a flea growth regulator spray, which kills fleas at the larvae stage and will not harm any of your pets. You can also vacuum your house thoroughly, but be sure to dispose of all that you vacuum up immediately, placing it in a sealed bag and bringing it outside. The vacuum doesn’t actually kill the adult fleas, larvae and eggs, it just collects them.

Bo in the flea bath.

Bo in the flea bath.

Believe me, washing my pets with flea-killing shampoo wasn’t my first option.

First, I treated all three animals with formula that you simply squirt on the top of their necks and upper back. (A common brand of this is Frontline.) It was supposed to start killing fleas (and ticks) in an hour.

But a week later, all three pets were still scratching at their necks. I ran a flea comb through my cat Arrow’s fur and came up with five fleas, just from his tail. My skin crawled as I wrapped the pests in toilet paper and tossed them in the toilet.

“Even though you think you treated the cat, you may have not gotten it right on the skin,” Dill suggested, pointing out that people often put the formula on the fur, where it doesn’t work as well.

Arrow after the bath.. won't look at me.

Arrow after the bath.. won’t look at me.

So, last evening, I decided try something else. I traveled to PetSmart and picked up two flea-killing shampoos — one for cats and one for dogs. It’s important that you don’t mix these. Some dog shampoos can be harmful to cats, and vice versa.

Back at home, my boyfriend Derek and I rolled up our sleeves and got to work. Our first patient — or victim, depending on your perspective — was Bo, our bengal housecat. Derek was the animal holder (decidedly the most dangerous job) and knelt on the bathmat, securing the cat to the bottom of the tub with both hands. I squatted in the tub with Bo, both of us in a few inches of warm water, and using a cup, I thoroughly soaked his fur.

Following the directions on the shampoo, I lathered him up from head to tail, then drained the water to shampoo his pudgy stomach and feet.

We then had to wait at least 5 minutes with the angry, soapy cat. Talk about awkward.

Bo burrito

Bo burrito

Rinsed and wrapped in a towel like a kitty burrito, Bo seemed to calmed down. We were standing by the bathroom door, ready to release our patient, when our other cat, Arrow, reached under the closed door with his furry white arm and sunk his claws into my foot.

After dislodging the claws from my skin (yes, I was bleeding), I watched Arrow continued to swipe at us from under the door. He had heard Bo’s desperate cries and was attempting to save him — or that’s my take on it.

We opened the door, released Bo, and since Arrow was clearly volunteering, we took him next.

Arrow after the bath. Not impressed. Ready to fight.

Arrow after the bath. Not impressed. Ready to fight.

If Arrow’s anything, he’s a fighter.

“He’s strong,” Derek exclaimed as he attempted to pin him down in the tub without having his eyes clawed out. Arrow pushed with his back legs, toes splayed, claws out. But in the end, we managed to shampoo him in the same fashion. And when we let him out of the bathroom, he shook his soaked back legs comically as he walked off in a daze.

We saved Oreo for last because we knew that a bath would devastate him the most, even though dogs generally like water more than cats. Oreo is terrified about anything that’s forced upon him. It’s a mental thing, I think.

Oreo shook with fear and he stood in the tub, only trying to step out once or twice. We praised him through the whole ordeal, and afterward, he recovered quickly, only hiding for a few minutes before being bribed by treats.

So we won the battle, but not the war — at least not yet.

Oreo sitting on the bedding we must wash to rid ourselves of fleas. "Are we sleeping out here now, guys?"

Oreo sitting on the bedding we must wash to rid ourselves of fleas. “Are we sleeping out here now, guys?”

After treating the pets, we still had to rid the house of fleas, as well as their larvae and eggs. We started on the laundry — sheets, pillows, comforters, dog bed covers, throw blankets. Two old cat beds went in the garbage. Then we took out the vacuum. And if the problem persists, we’ll be visiting the veterinarian for that flea growth regulator spray.

Of course, if we’d been more diligent about treating our pet for fleas monthly, we probably wouldn’t be in this situation.

Feeling a little itchy after reading all that? I don’t blame you.

One of the fleas that dropped dead after the bath. mohahaha

One of the fleas that dropped dead after the bath. mohahaha

My boss keeps teasing me about being infested with fleas myself. Fortunately, that’s very rare. Regular hygienic practices, such as showering, deters fleas from inhabiting humans. Though they’ll certainly have a taste — just a bite or two. Best to get rid of them as soon as possible.

The good news? All three pets are incredibly soft and sweet-smelling this morning, and best of all, no itching.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.