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Fleas 101

Flea Facts

  • Fleas are ectoparasites.
  • They are extremely hardy animals that have been around for more than 100 million years.
  • They have an exoskeleton that withstands high pressures and is shock resistant. You can drop a flea from five feet and not kill it because of their exoskeleton.
  • Fleas are incredible athletes. A flea can jump over seven inches high and thirteen inches long. If a flea were the size of a human, that's equivalent to jumping 1000 feet high!

Why care about these little bugs?

  • Fleas can transmit tapeworms when your pet ingests them. Tapeworms are intestinal parasites that can cause malnutrition if untreated.
  • Fleas can also transmit Yersina pestis, the bacteria that causes the bubonic plague.
  • Young animals with severe flea infestations are at risk for developing anemia.
  • Not only do fleas annoy their hosts relentlessly, some animals are sensitive to fleas and can develop a skin reaction called flea dermatitis," which can then lead to bacterial skin infections (pyoderma).
  • Don't forget, fleas can also bite people!

Signs your pet has fleas

  • Fleas cause many pets to become itchy. If your pet is scratching or biting their legs, rump, or feet, they could have fleas.
  • Likewise, if you notice black specks that look like pepper on your pet's skin, this could be flea dirt. Flea dirt is actually flea poop or digested blood. You can tell if the specks are flea dirt by wetting a Q-tip and then touching the black flecks. It's flea dirt if the Q-tip turns red or rust color.
  • Not all animals scratch or chew when they have fleas. To check for fleas, look for them on the skin near your pet's rump, tail and belly. Since adult fleas are fast and not easy to spot, be sure to also look for flea dirt. If your pets have flea dirt, they have fleas, even if you never see a flea. You can also use a flea comb, which has very fine teeth, to look for fleas and flea dirt. Use a wet paper towel to wipe off the comb and look for fleas and flea dirt.  

How to prevent and treat flea infestations

  • Use one of the many safe and effective flea products. Your veterinarian will help you pick the best choice for your pet.
  • Be sure the products you use target more than one stage of the flea's life cycle.
  • Use these products year-round to keep your household a flea-free zone.
  • Always follow the product's instructions. Some products can be toxic and even fatal if used incorrectly.
  • Never use a product meant for dogs on cats. Some dog products contain ingredients that can be toxic and even fatal to cats.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian, they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.


UBAC & WSU vaccinates dogs to help eradicate rabies from Africa.

For every rabies vaccination we give we will donate $1 to help eliminate rabies worldwide.


Dr. Guy Palmer isn't kidding when he says he got his start in veterinary medicine doing grunt work at a rabies research lab.
The only way to diagnose the deadly virus is to examine an animal's brain. So Palmer's job in 1974 was to pick up shipments of dog, skunk and cow heads at the bus depot and cut them open with a hacksaw.

Canine rabies was rare in the United States even back then, and has since been effectively wiped out.

But the disease continues to kill more than 59,000 people every year, mostly in Africa and Asia, said Palmer, founding director of the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health at Washington State University.
Palmer is also working with veterinary drug makers and hopes eventually to extend his campaign nationwide.
Now, he and his colleagues are working to extend the successes in the developed world to the rest of the globe with the goal of eliminating rabies in dogs by 2030. They're also enlisting American veterinarians and pet owners in the fight, starting in Seattle.
"It's not rocket science," Palmer said. "We have all the tools we need."
Since 99 percent of human rabies infections are from dog bites, the key is vaccinating enough dogs to shut down the spread of the virus.
It sounds daunting, but recent pilot projects prove it can be done, even in rural African communities.
"There was an attitude that these countries are too poor and too disorganized to possibly control rabies," Palmer said. "That's just not true."
For more than a decade, he and a team of WSU veterinarians have been conducting regular vaccination clinics in communities adjacent to Tanzania's Serengeti National Park. The project's original aim was to prevent the spread of rabies from domestic dogs to wildlife in the famous park.

But it quickly morphed into an effort to document and study the best approach to mass vaccination of dogs in an area where many people live in small villages with no electricity, while others herd cattle across vast grasslands.
The WSU teams operate by rolling into villages and setting up at a prominent spot, like the school, said WSU veterinarian Dr. Felix Lankester. It can be a chaotic scene, since African dogs usually roam free. But most actually have owners who lead them in on makeshift leashes, carry them in arms or occasionally tote them in buckets.
"It's often the children that bring the dogs for vaccination," Lankester said. On an average day, 300 dogs get jabbed. On busy days, the number can climb to 1,000. One field assistant is expert in breaking up dog fights.
Few villagers turn down the chance for the free vaccinations. "These communities have been blighted by rabies for generations," Lankester said. "They will have seen it in dogs and sometimes humans."

About half those killed by rabies are children.
WSU veterinarian Dr. Thumbi Mwangi, a native of Kenya, watched the disease ravage a 12-year-old boy.

Rabies can be prevented with a series of injections administered soon after exposure. But by the time the boy's parents got him to a hospital, the virus had already attacked his brain. At that point, the infection is almost invariably fatal.
When Mwangi visited, the child was thrashing violently and tried to run out of the hospital. He died soon after.
"Rabies is one of the most terrible diseases," Mwangi said.
Dogs suffer as well, not only from the virus but from violent purges.
In government-sponsored culls, countries like Bali, China and Morocco club dogs to death or poison them with strychnine, said Louise Taylor, scientific director for the Global Alliance for Rabies Control.
"So much cruelty to dogs happens because of the fear of rabies."

The massacres continue though the evidence is clear that they don't lower the risk of rabies. The population rebounds almost immediately and many owners hide their dogs or smuggle them out of the killing zone, Taylor explained.
The evidence is equally clear that vaccination does work.
Since the WSU program began, human rabies infections in the area have been reduced almost to zero.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also got similar results in pilot projects in South Africa, Tanzania and the Philippines.
At the same time, studies have found that despite its fearsome reputation, rabies doesn't spread easily between dogs. If 70 percent are vaccinated, the chain of transmission is broken and the virus dies out, Palmer said.
And unlike North America, where bats, skunks, raccoons and other wild animals harbor the virus and can infect dogs, Africa doesn't seem to have any wild reservoirs where rabies lurks.

"It appears that if you vaccinate the dog population, you don't see rabies coming back," Palmer said.
In the U.S., where rabies vaccinations have been mandated since the 1950s, two people died from the disease in 2015, one apparently infected by a bat and the other by a dog bite in the Philippines. The last human case in Washington was in 1997.
A more recent success story comes from Latin America, where rabies deaths have been slashed by more than 95 percent in the past 30 years, Taylor pointed out.
The next step in Africa is to scale up the efforts, which will take money and commitments from local governments.
Kenya has launched an ambitious program to roll out vaccinations across five provinces over the next three years, then nationwide, Mwangi said. The World Health Organization has also endorsed the 2030 target date.
With costs ranging from 50 cents to a dollar per dog, WSU estimates it will take about $100 million to coordinate a program across Africa and establish a vaccine bank that nations can draw on.

The Gates Foundation has ended most of its rabies funding to focus on other priorities, like malaria and HIV, according to a spokesman.
With no major donor in the picture, Palmer and his team decided to launch their own fundraising effort working with veterinarians in Seattle.
One of the first to sign on was Lien Animal Clinic in West Seattle, owned by WSU vet-school alums.
The clinic donates a dollar for every rabies shot administered, and gives clients the option of chipping in as well.
"The magnitude of rabies in other parts of the world is very shocking to people," said owner Dr. Timothy Kraabel. "If we can be the start of something where lots and lots of clinics end up helping out, it can make a huge difference."
Palmer is also working with veterinary drugmakers and hopes eventually to extend his campaign nationwide.

Despite the challenges, the WSU group is convinced that it won't be long before rabies is reined in across much of the developing world.
"There are lots of things we fight in science, like HIV and malaria, and the end is never in sight," Mwangi said. "Rabies is different. I think in our lifetimes we will see a day when Kenya has no rabies."

Sandi Doughton at: 206-464-2491 or


I know...some of you will be offended because you believe these myths with religious fervor. These sacred myths have been passed down from generation to generation, validated and approved by your friends, neighbors, fellow pet owners and vanpool riders. We get it! Fleas are complicated and difficult to eradicate but it can be done with a little common sense and perseverance. So, here goes, in no particular order, the debunking of the flea myths!


Life cycle

There are over 2000 species of fleas on earth.  Some, like the rat flea that carried bubonic plague in the middle ages, changed the course of history.  Most fleas live on only one host species.  The largest flea on earth lives on the unique rodent, the Mountain Beaver, which lives as close to us as Mukilteo.  We don't have them on Whidbey.  This colossal flea can measure 1/2 inch!  Our enemy is the cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis, which can live on dogs, raccoons, weasels, coyotes as well as cats.  An adult female flea can lay up to 50 eggs a day and up to 2000 in her lifetime.  She can live up to 100 days without a blood meal.


I like to think of fleas as ugly butterflies. They start with an egg which hatches into a larva which forms a cocoon and after a period of time, hatches into an adult blood sucking flea. They emerge from cocoons and immediately start feeding. Eggs are produced within 24 hours after feeding. The cocoons usually hatch into adults in about 10 days but can stay dormant for up to 6 months. Once the adults find a warm body, they stay there until they die.


I don't take my dog to the beach because he/she picks up so many fleas there!


Sorry folks, those small, hopping critters on the beach are amphipods, which are related to shrimp. They feed on decaying plant and animal material and can give your feet a little pinch but they do not suck blood. Sterile sand is a terrible place for fleas to live. They prefer houses and in areas where they reproduce outside, they are mostly found in shady moist rich soils. If you find hopping critters in your yard or garden, they are likely not fleas. Pick some up with scotch tape, bring them to us and we will identify them. We love a good mystery!


That flea product you sold me doesn't work!


Most of the products sold by veterinary hospitals work very well. So why do you still have fleas after following all our instructions? There are many reasons for this;

1)      The product was not applied correctly. Read the instructions!

2)      There are Chinese counterfeit knockoffs of some of these products, especially Frontline. They look identical but are often ineffective or even harmful. Not even a sales representative  can tell the difference. We know that our product comes directly from the manufacturer. Frontline stands behind its product to the extent that if you purchase the product from a veterinarian, apply it to all the animals in the house for three months and you still have fleas, they will pay to have an exterminator come to your house!

3)      You haven't treated ALL the dogs and cats in the house. Cats can harbor a large number of fleas, still act cool and hardly lick or scratch. The dog who is not itching may also be the source of fleas. Remember that one flea can produce 50 eggs a day.

4)      The most common reason is that during an infestation, the newly hatched fleas are jumping on as soon as the old fleas die. It will only appear that the product isn't working. Despite manufacturer's claims, THERE IS NO FLEA REPELLENT! Let's say you can kill all the adults, eggs and larvae in your house. Short of burning down the house, you can't kill cocoons, even with a good insecticide. Those cocoons will hatch out for about three weeks and you will see fleas. Be patient and you will be richly rewarded!


But my cat never goes outside!


In this part of the world, fleas reproduce poorly outdoors. If you go to Houston, Miami, or Los Angeles, they reproduce with orgiastic enthusiasm outdoors all year. They almost always reproduce in the HOUSE here on Whidbey! It doesn't matter if you are a meticulous housekeeper. If your pets have fleas, you certainly have reproducing fleas in your floors and furniture. This can occur even in the winter but mostly around the wood or propane stove or central heat registers.

I DO NOT have fleas. He must have picked them up in the waiting room of your vet hospital!

            Denial is one of the first stages of grief! We keep the premises flea free.


I can't have fleas. I don't have any rugs!


Yes you can. Sorry. The flea larvae find crevices in hardwood floors, any other flooring, and beneath baseboards. They do just fine there. I once ran an experiment. A cat came in loaded with fleas, flea eggs and flea poop. I swept up a bunch of eggs and poop and put them under a folded paper in a stainless steel kennel. The eggs hatched into larva. The larva feasted on the flea poop and spun cocoons. If I hadn't destroyed them, the cocoons would have hatched adult fleas. This is on a non-porous, stainless steel surface!


It can't be a flea allergy! You can't find any fleas!


When fleas feed, they inject a little anticoagulant saliva into the skin so the blood keeps flowing. Some cats and dogs are allergic to this saliva and will scratch so much they may even bleed. Many flea allergic animals will develop secondary staph or yeast infections.

Some poor animals are so sensitive to flea bites that they can itch for up to 2 weeks after only one bite. In cases like this, we may never see fleas because right after the bite the dog or cat hunts down the flea and eats it. Evidence gone!


It can't be fleas! If there is one flea in the house, it will find me and bite me!


Oh boy! If you hop out of bed on a fine September morning and fleas jump all over your ankles, you have a BIG problem! Those are just the fleas that have hatched out while you were sleeping! The truth is, fleas prefer our furry friends. They only get on humans as a last resort or if you are sleeping with, or in close proximity to, a flea infested dog or cat.


We need a good freeze to kill all the fleas!


Well, there is a grain of truth to all myths... Most insects, fleas included, are perfectly capable of withstanding freezing temperatures. On a 20 degree day, shuffle across the carpet and get a static electricity shock when you touch the doorknob. This occurs because cold air can't hold as much moisture. it is also too dry for flea larvae to survive. That is why, in the relatively dry eastern Washington and places like Idaho and Nevada, fleas are not a problem. A vet friend once told me that every year his veterinary school entomology professor would freeze living adult fleas in an ice cube under controlled conditions. He would leave them in the freezer until next year, thaw them out in front of the wide-eyed students and the fleas would come back to life.


Worst month of the year


Guess the worst month of the year...October is the answer! Why October? Some folks have the impression that, when the weather starts to turn cold, thousands of fleas from outside come hopping and skipping toward the warm house. What REALLY happens is that those fleas you ignored in April have laid their 50 eggs per day and the population EXPLODES and reaches its peak in October. In 2016-17 fleas were bad until mid January.




EEEEWWWW! Nothing beats waking up to a tapeworm segment blobbing around on your pillow. These worms are usually a foot or so long but you only get to see the small reproductive segments. The different species are transmitted by eating affected, fleas, rodents, rabbits, birds or fish. In the case of the Dipylidium tapeworm, a flea larva eats a segment that contains eggs. These eggs mature in the flea larva and remain as the larva becomes an adult. The adult blood sucking flea is eaten by a dog or cat and the tapeworm hatches and, in about a month, starts to shed segments and the cycle begins again. Seems almost miraculous! There are safe medicines for this. And, no, unless your dog or cat has an incredible number of tapeworms it will not lose weight!

What can we do?

Humans can do nothing to decrease the overall world flea population but we can protect our pets and homes.

First, if you see even ONE flea, take it very seriously and treat ALL pets in the house. That one flea in April can become 100,000 by October. Second, treat all animals in the house. Use good products. Avoid any products containing permethrin or any other -thrin. These do not work and may be very toxic, especially in cats. We like the oral prescription medications rather than the spot-ons because the spot-ons can wash or be licked off and sometimes only last 2-3 weeks. Spot-ons are now the best choice for cats because the oral pills are huge, cats won't eat them and it is difficult to cram them down the cat's throat. Our favorite spot-on is Frontline Gold. Oral medications are the quickest acting and last the longest. Our favorites are Nexgard (which lasts one month) and Bravecto (which lasts three months).

I recommend treating only the pets first but in a huge outbreak you may need to spray the house. I don't like the flea bombs so much. You know, the ones that you set off and run like hell. These don't go outside doorways very well per room. They also go on surfaces where you don't want them to go like in the kitchen.  I like the sprays better. You simply walk around the house, starting in a far corner of a room, as if you were giving a fine coat of spray paint. Don't forget to spray under the couch, beds and coffee tables. Flea larvae like dark areas best.

If all else fails, hire a local exterminator. They often guarantee the work and use relatively safe products.


Year round flea treatment?


Up until the past few years, I advised folks to begin treating in April and stop in November. The past three years have been so bad that I am very close to recommending year round treatment.


Thank you for reading this! Please let us know if you have any questions. We are here for you and for the health of your pets.


Dave F. Parent, DVM