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Business Is Hopping for Southland Flea-Fighting Firms : Pests: A bumper crop of insects this year means increased revenue for pet shops and veterinarians.


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 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 like the last 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 Los Angeles and Orange counties, owner Marty Hoesch says he has hired extra employees 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 last month have come in looking for 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 last few weeks, she said, that customers face a waiting list for having their dogs treated.

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 expected even more business this summer--a year-to-year increase of 40%. But because July and August have not been as hot as usual, the flea population hasn't 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 onetime application method of killing fleas as being as safe as table salt--attributes much of its revenue growth to demand among consumers for environmentally friendly products.

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