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Pets and Owners at War With Fleas


Latest word from the North County pet front: The fleas have landed and have the situation well in hand.

When daytime temperatures hit the 90s and humidity is a sticky 60%, conditions in the back-yard battlefield are flea-ideal.

"San Diego is the flea capital of the world," said David Kellum, from his command post as head entomologist with the San Diego County Department of Agriculture.

The cost of flea defense is escalating. Americans spent more than $1 billion last year on insecticides, preventives, exterminator services and medical care of their flea-infested pets.

"Never mind when people say that North County was built on an ant hill. I'm positive it was a flea hill," said Bernice Erdman. She lives in Carmel Valley and defends 9-year-old Magregor, who gets weekly baths and regular trips to the groomer's for flea dips--largely to no avail.

Although most people see fleas as little more than an annoyance, their potential for damage goes well beyond causing the pooch to scratch all night. Fleas are known carriers of bubonic plague, the disease which ravaged Western Europe in the 14th Century.

This was brought a little closer to home two weeks ago when a plague-infected squirrel was found in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, prompting county officials to start a flea eradication program in the Paso Picacho Campground. Other areas are being tested for presence of plague, including Palomar Mountain Observatory campground, Los Penasquitos Canyon and Lake Wohlford.

Bubonic plague, fatal if left untreated but readily cured when diagnosed, has never been reported in humans in San Diego County. But, in 1987, a mountain lion was found to be infected and in 1982, three dogs.

Tapeworms are a more likely threat than the plague; fleas are intermediary hosts for tapeworm larvae. If a pet ingests a tapeworm-carrying flea, it gets tapeworms.

The role of the flea in the total scheme of the universe isn't very illustrious, according to David Faulkner, entomologist at San Diego Natural History Museum. Basically, it isn't good for anything--unless you consider negative behavior to be a positive thing, says this entomologist. Fleas can spread disease, and, in so doing, can reduce an overabundance of a certain animal species--like mice.

Most of the fleas that pester dogs are actually cat fleas. Truth is, these fleas would prefer Mittens to Rover, but a cat flea views dogs and humans as suitable substitute fare if a cat lunch isn't available.

Flea bites on humans tend to be round, raised, red bumps. They are smaller than mosquito bites and cause the same itching sensation.

The word from the flea combat front is mixed.

"We're no further ahead than we were 100 years ago in terms of eliminating the flea," said veterinarian James C. Blakemore of Purdue University, at a recent American Veterinary Medical Assn. conference in Boston.

A slightly rosier picture was offered by veterinarian Michael W. Dryden of Kansas State University, known as "DR. FLEA" on his license plates and in veterinary circles.

Since 1986, Dryden has been a lone wolf in his approach to the flea problem. Traditionally, researchers studied how fleas reacted to various insecticides. Dryden instead studies the insect itself, "what the flea does, where it feeds, how it reproduces, how it moves, what it thinks."

(For the record, fleas don't think. Although fleas have excellent survival skills--witness the dog just hours after he's had a flea bath--fleas haven't evolved much beyond that.)

Blakemore says one of the best weapons in battling fleas is a fine-tooth comb. Research has proven that fleas lay their eggs right on the host animal. You can comb them off of the dog or cat and significantly reduce the flea population in your home. Diligence is the buzzword here.

If truly getting rid of fleas is your goal, there is always chemical warfare.

By combining a government-approved insect growth regulator on flea larvae (a poison that kills or retards the growth process for unborn fleas) with a product approved to kill adult fleas and a third product to treat the pet, you can make the problem go away. At least until the next time the dog steps outside.

Considering the rate of flea reproduction, if a typical home was treated for fleas and had a 99% kill rate, the original flea population would be restored in less than 20 days.

Flea bombs, available in most supermarkets and pet shops, are fine for treating small areas. They're probably the most inexpensive weapon in battling fleas, costing approximately $5-$8 per bomb and capable of fogging a single room (dimensions vary).

When you use a bomb, it's necessary to leave the house, remove the pets, sometimes the plants, and cover all exposed food. You must return after a few hours to open windows to air the room, and then leave again.

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