Published on January 12th, 2016 | by Debbie Martin0
Fleas and Winter
Of all the parasites affecting dogs and cats in the UK, fleas are perhaps the most obvious. If you take a close look at in infested animal, you’ll be able to see them – they’re little black dots nestled among the fur. If left unchecked, fleas (and their close cousins, ticks) can act as carriers for a number of nasty blood-borne diseases. It’s therefore vital that pet-owners take steps to shield their pets against the threat.
That said, many pet owners feel that this threat isn’t quite so egregious during winter. As we’ll see, this is far from the case – and in fact, thanks to this decline in vigilance, the opposite can be true.
How do Fleas Operate?
When animals explore their environment, they run the risk of coming into contact with fleas, which will attach themselves to the skin of their host, bite them and begin to feed on their blood. This danger is all the great when animals come into contact with infected animals – fleas are famed for their ability to jump great distances, and so where animals are rubbing against one another, they are quite able to leap from one to another.
Flea bites are, in and of themselves, extremely irritating. But there are more serious knock-on effects. Perhaps the most acute of these is an allergic reaction – animals which are hypersensitive to flea saliva will begin to scratch themselves madly after just a few bites. Fleas also drain an animal’s blood, to an extent which can be fatal in particular young and particularly old animals. And, as we’ve mentioned, fleas can also act as a carrier for diseases like myxomatosis, a particularly nasty disease which in the 1950s wiped out more than 95% of the rabbits in the UK.
What Can be Done About Fleas?
The most potent weapon in the battle against flea infestation in cleanliness and proper hygiene. Bedding and furniture should be regularly cleaned, as should skirting boards and floors. This will help to remove flea pupae which are lying dormant on the ground.
If undisturbed, flea pupae can lie waiting in this state for many months, waiting for the right temperature to be reached. When this happens, they can come out of their cocoons all at once, presenting a huge problem to any warm-blooded creatures which might be nearby.
During the summer, conversely, this temperature of around twenty-degrees is sometimes not attained in some areas of a house, thanks to air-conditioning and other such innovations. Furthermore, summer sometimes does not provide pupae with the moisture they require.
When winter arrives, conversely, we tend to ratchet up the heating a little – providing these flea pupae with the temperature they require – and the humidity, too. These factors, combined with a lack of anti-flea measures, can provide fleas with an excellent opportunity to strike!
Flea medication comes in many different forms, ranging from topical lotions to tablets to sprays. Each offers protection against fleas, but for a number of reasons, many owners choose not to medicate their pets all year round.
One of the main reasons for this is cost – anti-flea medication is costly, and frugal pet-owners, when looking to control the size of their bills, will look for periods of apparent safety. It’s a calculated risk, to be sure, but it’s one which is mostly gotten away with. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, winter is not quite as safe as many might imagine.
Other reasons for using less flea medication stem from misinformation. Many pet owners hesitate before applying flea medication, as they might have heard that some of the side effects of flea medication can be worse than the fleas themselves. Some dogs and cats, for example, have been known to suffer fatal allergic reactions in response to anti-flea medication.
While such cases are unfortunate, their details are rarely reported on news sites or in conversation. In many cases, they are brought about not by the medication itself, but by an error in application. For example, there have been instances where medications designed for dogs have been given to cats – often with fatal results. As ever, it’s important to stress the importance of reading the label and following its directives – many medicines can be malign if used improperly, and so these extreme cases should not form a basis for your approach to your pet’s health.
Why Medicate During Winter?
Still, many owners will be reluctant to medicate. Isn’t it better, they say, to ensure that a home is flea-proof than to invest so much in medication – however safe such medication might be? Well, the problem is that no home is truly flea-proof – even in the dead of winter.
While it’s true that fleas cannot survive extremes in cold, the creatures are far more resilient than many might imagine. Estimates for the lower boundary in flea temperature is around four degrees, or around the same as the interior of a fridge. We must also consider that fleas are very small, and so are able to find small pockets of heat in the nooks and crannies of your home.
It’s also worth considering that not all fleas are built alike. There are more than a thousand different varieties within the order, and all of them are subtly different in their ability to withstand extremes in temperature and humidity. That’s before you even consider the flea’s close cousin, the tick, a similarly diverse category of parasite.
While we might think of them as extremely cold during the winter, enclosed areas like porches and conservatories can still offer fleas the warmth they need to survive. Unless you’re prepared to plunge your entire home into sub-zero temperatures to purge it of fleas, then you’re not going to be protected. And, even an extreme measure like this will be undone if a flea-carrying animal or person should stray inside your home.
Without medication, you pet’s ability to resist the threat posed by fleas will depend hugely upon pure luck. It’s therefore clear that, if you want to give your pet proper protection against fleas this winter, you’ll need to err on the side of caution and medicate them just as you would in the summer.