Fall falacies: Debunking some myths about autumn pests

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Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher
OFF THE LEASH

That time of year has arrived! Cool evenings, beautiful leaves, fleas trying to get into your house and hungry ticks. I never said that there weren’t bad things about the fall season as well. Since October started, I have been pulling ticks off both my dogs and my horse. Since my cat is indoors only and wouldn’t demean herself by touching the dogs, she has remained tick free. We are also seeing tons of pets with fleas all of a sudden, so I thought this was a good time to talk about some pest myths.

Flea/tick prevention is only needed in the summer.

This is a big myth. Prevention is needed throughout the summer, but ticks are actually most active in the spring and fall. Ticks do not die in the cold, so a couple of nights at 40 degrees don’t even begin to faze them. Ticks are searching for a blood meal as the temperatures drop. While they don’t die, they almost hibernate once the temperatures drop below freezing. Since they don’t know if we will have a long cold winter, or a winter when they can scamper about and feed for months, they prepare for the worst.

Ticks are programmed to take a blood meal in the fall in case they must get through a winter. For that reason, they are fast, jumpy and hungry this time of year. While we have been seeing some breaks in protection during warm winters, fall is the time of year when many dogs are infected because prevention was stopped too early.

Unlike ticks, fleas do die outside when the weather gets cold. After about two hard frosts they are typically unable to survive. What does that mean? It means that as the weather cools off they go into overdrive trying to get on a warm creature and get into your house. Their tiny flea brains aren’t exactly thinking of how nice it would be to lay eggs under your carpet in your warm house, but they are driven to get out of the environment and onto a host. Once inside your house, they can eat, lay eggs and go through a wonderful cozy winter inside.

In my opinion, fall is one of the most important times to make sure your prevention is up to date.

You shouldn’t see fleas after you apply a preventative.

This is another common misconception. A flea life cycle typically is complete after three months, though a flea can live up to a year (and that doesn’t count their eggs and hatching babies.) Some preventatives start killing fleas quickly while others take a day or so. Regardless, if a flea bites and dies and then a new one jumps on from your couch, it needs to bite and die as well. If we are seeing fleas or flea dirt on your pet it is important to do prevention for at least three months.

We do not (and will not ever) have a product that you can put on your pet and not see any fleas ever again. Each flea can lay up to 10,000 eggs. These reside in your home, car and other warm inconvenient places. The best thing to do is to use a preventative to kill the fleas and inhibit their ability to lay more eggs, perimeter spray and vacuum daily. I know. Every single day. You don’t have to do this for the entire three months, but I usually recommend two weeks. Every time you vacuum you then need to empty your canister or throw away the bag. Flea eggs are super sticky and are happy to hatch inside your vacuum. Flea pupae (think teen-ager flea) are encased in a very thick cover that is impermeable to almost everything. For that reason, we must get through that part of the life cycle before we can expect a flea infestation to disappear.

The bottom line is that fleas are gross and ticks are gross. Both carry a lot of diseases, from the plague to the Lyme disease organism. This is the time of year when they are very driven to find a host and take a blood meal or move into your house. Tick preventative shouldn’t be stopped until the snow covers the grass (if ever) and flea prevention shouldn’t be stopped until we have had enough brutally cold nights to kill them all. We now have very effective and safe collars, topical prevention (even a three-month version for cats!), and oral prevention that can be given either monthly or every 12 weeks, depending on the brand. There is truly a prevention to fit any lifestyle, while I haven’t found a flea infestation really fits well into any life.

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher is a veterinarian at All Points Animal Care in Rutland. Have a question on this or any animal health topic? E-MAIL: petdocanna@gmail.com

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