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Pet Owners Try to Bite Back at Flurry of Fleas

September 28, 1987|GARY LIBMAN | Times Staff Writer

Don't tell anyone, but we have fleas.

Indicative of the trouble in Los Angeles this year is the complaint of Montebello veterinarian O.W. Estafanous. "We never had a worse problem," he said. "We used to spray the dog once a week and he'd be OK. Now we are spraying the dog more often and we have a worse problem."

But veterinarians and researchers have a message for pet owners: Not to worry, they say. Most of the commercial remedies--the dips, powders, bombs and shampoos--will make a flea flee. Used properly, these preparations will get the bugs out even though the weather has been particularly to a flea's liking.

A Large Crop of Fleas

Observers attribute this year's large, hungry crop of fleas to a mild 1987 winter that continually provided the warm temperatures ideal for their reproduction.

"We never got a good kill," said Santa Monica veterinarian Dale Smith. "So we started with a bigger burden this spring and it has progressively gotten worse in the summer."

The resulting infestation has propelled consumers into grocery stores, pet shops and veterinary hospitals looking for something, anything that would reduce the flea population in their homes.

One new product, however, has run into trouble of its own. Touted by its producer as the first insecticide to both repel and kill fleas and ticks, Hartz Blockade will soon carry a label, warning against its use on young or pregnant cats and young puppies. The new label will also state that the product should be applied lightly, without saturating, and that applications should be made not more than once every seven days.

Hartz Mountain Corp. agreed to the warning--which should be showing up on aerosol cans within a few weeks--after an Environmental Protection Agency investigation found that the flea and tick repellent had caused "definite" or "suspected" toxic effects, including 26 deaths, in 201 dogs and cats this year.

Hartz, which has been ordered by the EPA to conduct additional toxicity tests on Blockade, has issued a statement defending it as part of a group of flea killers "reputed to be among the safest insecticides available."

That statement may or may not satisfy pet owners. But local veterinarians say that if animal lovers wish to seek other products, many effective ones are available.

The key to successful treatment, they say, is to remember that the flea spends little time on your pet. The dark, acrobatic little insect, less than an eighth of an inch long, can leap eight inches vertically or 13 inches horizontally. When it gets hungry, it does what most of us do--it eats and runs--getting on and off the animal quickly.

"A flea almost goes out to lunch on a dog or cat for a few minutes every 24 to 48 hours. He eats and goes back to the environment," said Peter Ihrke, associate professor of dermatology at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Hundreds of Eggs

If that seems simple and innocuous enough, consider these facts: For every flea you see--on you, your animal or in mid-hop--there are 50 to 100 or more in the environment, according to people who keep track of these things. Within a single month a female flea can produ1667571816offspring may give birth to several thousand under ideal conditions.

Most eggs are laid off the animal, but even an egg laid on an animal falls off quickly. When the egg hatches, it becomes a larva, and the larva seeks a quiet place--in couches, under pillows or in pet bedding--to pupate. Fleas can live in the cocoon-like, pupal stage for more than a year, but when the highly sensitive pupa is stimulated by a vibration or a favorable change in temperature or humidity, a hopping, hungry adult flea emerges.

Because neither the flea nor the egg remain on the animal for long, experts say that the key to successful eradication is treating not only the animal but the house and the yard.

For that battleground, veterinarians reserve particular praise for insecticides that contain the generic chemical metheprine, which stops the development of the larva into fleas. And a good vacuum cleaner can be your best ally. "You must vacuum all the rugs, carpets and furniture, particularly under the cushions. That's where the fleas will drop their eggs," said J. W. Edwards, general manager of American City Pest Control in Lawndale.

Stopping the development of larva is not enough, however. The adult flea must also be attacked. Ihrke said, "The products we feel most comfortable with for that task are those which contain the chemical compounds pyrethrins or pyrethroids."

Use Malathion Outdoors

When the treatment moves outdoors, the veterinarians recommend the use of a relatively safe product such as malathion, recently used to spray medflies in Los Angeles.

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