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Gardening in Gwinnett: Fleas are a nuisance, but can be controlled

Any pet owner can testify fleas can be a real nuisance at times, even when the infestation of fleas on the family dog or cat is not apparent. The insects can thrive indoors as well as outdoors, and can bite people as well. In spite of the problems fleas can cause, they can be brought under control although it takes some effort.

Fleas are small, flat-bodied insects, 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch long. They have pierce-sucking mouthparts and their bodies are covered with backward projecting spines. Fleas can jump more than a foot off the ground. They lay eggs that hatch into a larval stage, then they pupate before merging as adults. The life cycle can last anywhere from one to eight months, depending upon the species, temperature and moisture levels, and food availability. Adult fleas are unable to live or reproduce without a blood meal, but they can survive several months without feeding. Sometimes when a homeowner with pets goes on vacation for a week or more, the flea eggs in the house hatch, and then the larvae pupate. When the family returns, theyare set upon by a large number of hungry, newly hatched adult fleas.

Flea bites do not itch, but can cause skin irritations. The bites themselves are seldom ever felt, but the person or the animal can have allergic reactions to the saliva of the flea, and infections of the bite area can also develop.

Several options exist for controlling fleas. First, treat the pet. Consult with a veterinarian about the best type of flea repellents to use. You can use a specially designed comb to remove the fleas. A warm, soapy bath will help eliminate fleas, or use specially formulated pet shampoos with an insecticide in them. The pet can sometimes be treated with the growth regulator insecticide, Methroprene, which disrupts the life cycle of the fleas.

Vacuum the house thoroughly, including all carpets, bare floors, and furniture, and anywhere else the pet has access to, before you apply any insecticides. Once you have finished, wrap the vacuum cleaner bag in a plastic garbage bag and dispose of it. You may need to have the carpets and the upholstery professionally washed and steam cleaned.

After vacuuming the house the insecticide applications can be made. Sometimes people use insecticide aerosol "bombs" but they are not real efficient at treating where the fleas are. Better to spot treat areas in the home with Methroprene or other such insecticides, and the control can last up to six months.

The last step is to treat the outdoor areas around your home, especially in the areas where the pet spends its time. Mow the grass in these areas and remove any trash or debris. Several products are available for flea control, including insecticides containing carbaryl (Sevin), esfenvalerate, or cyfluthrin. When using pesticides, make sure you follow all label directions and safety precautions. Multiple applications made two to four weeks apart may be necessary to control the fleas.

Following these methods of control and keeping areas where the pet spends its time clean and removing debris, fleas infestations of the pet and the home can be minimized. Perseverance is a must because flea control can be difficult and takes time, but it can be achieved. For more information on flea control contact your veterinarian or the Extension office.

Timothy Daly is an agricultural and natural resource agent with the Gwinnett County Extension Service. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.