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Pet Owners Are Pestered by Bad Flea Season : But Business Jumps at Stores Offering Solutions, Environmental Safety

August 18, 1993|HELAINE OLEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To the irritation of pet owners, 1993 is shaping up as one of Southern California's worst flea seasons in memory.

That means business is jumping for those who provide flea relief, especially companies that advertise environmentally safe solutions.

Pet stores, veterinarians, groomers and exterminators say that revenue from flea treatments and products is even higher than last year, which also produced a bumper crop of insects.

Scientists say that wet, relatively warm winters such as the past two in the Southland promote breeding among fleas, which thrive in moist soil.

"This is a good year for flea control," said John Munro, an administrator for Pest Control Operators of California, a Sacramento trade group representing 1,500 companies and 8,500 pest-control specialists.

At Flea-X/Pest Free, an exterminating company that operates in Orange and Los Angeles counties, owner Marty Hoesch says he has hired extra staff for the summer to keep up with demand for his services.

"It's not discretionary spending," Hoesch said. "When you need help, you need help. Many of our customers who call us at this time of year want us there yesterday."

At Doggone Purrfection, a pet store in Sherman Oaks, co-owner Chuck Ober estimates that half of his customers in the past month have come in to buy flea relief.

"In this recession, the rest of the business is not doing gangbusters," Ober said, "but the flea-product end of it is going up."

In 1991, the latest year for which figures are available, Americans spent $76.3 million for flea-related products at pet stores alone, according to the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council in Washington. Moreover, 13% of dogs and 9% of cats received flea treatments when they visited their veterinarians.

Those percentages are likely to be much higher this year, pet experts say, especially in the Southland.

"California is a flea factory," said Connie Hershberger, owner of the Paws-A-While pet grooming service in Manhattan Beach. Business has been so good in the past few weeks, she said, that canine customers have to get on a waiting list to be de-flead.

Fleabusters Inc., a nationwide exterminator with regional headquarters in Los Angeles, says it has increased its staff by 25% over last summer and extended its operating hours to keep up with consumer demand.

Rick Henderson, a Fleabusters vice president, said that, after the winter's heavy rains, the company had anticipated even more business this summer--a year-to-year increase of 40%. Because July and August have not been as hot as usual, however, the flea population has not exploded, he said.

"In the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys our phones are going nuts, but not in areas like the South Bay, where it's cooler," Henderson said. "It's when temperatures reach between 80 and 90 degrees that our phones ring off the hook."

Fleabusters--which advertises its one-time application method of killing fleas as being as safe as table salt--attributes much of its revenue growth, too, to demand among consumers for environmentally friendly products.

The switch to safer insecticides may, indeed, be where the industry's future is, analysts say.

"There is a certain segment of society that likes more natural products," said John Chadwell, editor of the magazine Pet Product News & PSM in Irvine. "Major manufacturers have developed (products) over a period of time to meet that demand."

That may be cutting into the revenue of national companies that rely on conventional pesticides.

At the Anaheim office of Orkin Exterminating Co., requests for summer flea relief are not coming in as fast as expected, sales manager Randall Athey said.

"There are more companies and . . . alternatives to traditional services--such as ultrasonics and one-time applications with year guarantees," Athey said.

Low-toxicity products are also selling well in pet stores.

Hansen's Pet Product Co. in Huntington Beach, which developed and sells a line of natural flea fighters, opened in 1991 with products in 25 stores. This year, the company is stocking shelves at more than 100 businesses in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

"It's not just the rains that helped us out," co-owner Kyle Hansen said. "It's the move to more natural products."

Those in the business of killing fleas say there is more than enough anti-flea sentiment to go around.

"I guess they are good for business, but you hate to have a pet with fleas," said Walton Kunimoto, store director for the Garden Grove outlet of Petsmart, a Phoenix-based pet supply chain. "My Rottweiler is not doing well now."

Please, No Fleas

Fleabusters, a Southern California pest-control firm that specializes in eliminating the pests, is experiencing an increase in business during this year's warm-weather months compared to last year.

Number of jobs completed, by month:

1992 1993 April 2,548 2,664 May 4,485 3,982 June 5,483 7,118 July 4,677 5,665 Aug.* 2,645 2,742

* First two weeks

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