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FOR PET OWNERS, IT'S OPEN SEASON ON FLEAS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

We hate them. Our pets hate them. In fact, some animals literally go bald trying to scratch the disgusting little creatures away. And, as menacing as Jason but multiplied a million times, they're baaaa-aaaack. Fleas just love this hot humid weather.

The bad news: Fleas want your pet's blood and they want it bad. And these irritating insects reproduce like crazy. After every feast on your pet's blood, a female flea lays four to eight eggs, says Dr. Richard Kramer, an entomologist with the National Pest Control Association.

And for each one flea you spot on your animal, there are between 90 and 100 in your environment, says Dr. Ken Volk, a veterinarian at Lutherville Animal Hospital.

Even worse news: Lacking an animal's blood to suck on, fleas go after yours.

The good news: The presence in our homes of these icky parasites is not a given. With education, pest-control products, persistence and a plan, pet owners have a fighting chance. Others just fight -- over whether to use chemical or natural flea control products.

Chris Jackson has four dogs, six cats, breeds Dalamations and owns the Long Last Kennel in Owings Mills. She says fleas are not a problem for her. Now, if Ms. Jackson can live a flea-free life, there's got to be hope for the rest of us.

Ms. Jackson is amazed how some people calmly accept fleas as a necessary fact of life. "It is not inevitable," she says. "You do not have to have fleas."

OK, so fleas don't have to be a part of your life. But how do you keep them off of your pet -- or get rid of them if a flea colony has taken up residence in your home? Well, there's a good deal of debate about the best way to prevent and get rid of fleas.

Here are three things everyone agrees on: Vacuum at least weekly or preferably daily. The pet's entire environment must be treated (at the same time the animal is treated) or you're wasting time, effort and money. And each pet in the home must be treated, although it may seem that only one animal is affected.

That's where the agreement ends, because people have quite passionate and widely varying opinions on whether natural or chemical remedies should be used for flea control.

Brewer's yeast and garlic

"I'm a great believer in natural remedies," Ms. Jackson says.

"Many people, and I am one, swear by the brewer's yeast and garlic remedy. My feeling is that if it doesn't work, at least it doesn't hurt. Everyone (the four dogs and six cats) goes on the brewer's yeast and garlic this time of year," she says.

The other natural "insect repellent" some people, including Ms. Jackson, swear by is not really meant to be a repellent at all. It's Avon's "Skin So Soft" moisture oil.

"Skin So Soft works. And it has nothing in it that will harm your children, your pets or yourself," Ms. Jackson says.

For Ms. Jackson, the only drawback to using Skin So Soft is it clings to wherever the pet goes. "You have a home that smells a little bit like a bordello!" she jokes.

People at Avon issue a standard "no comment" when questioned about their product's being used as flea control. "For 30 years, we have heard about its being used all kinds of ways," says Alix Mendes, public relations manager at Avon Products Inc. However, Skin So Soft is marketed for humans, she says.

Other pet owners say ultrasonic flea collars that emit vibrating sounds keep fleas at bay. And a plethora of "natural" sprays, shampoos and powders can be found at pet stores. But most veterinarians and researchers don't buy the supposed efficacy of any of these natural products.

"There is no scientific research saying that Skin So Soft works," says Dr. Kent Roberts, a veterinary professor at Virginia/Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. "The brewer's yeast -- no value. The garlic -- same. And those electronic flea collars are totally useless," he says.

Yet, Dr. Susanne Felser, a veterinarian at Finksburg Veterinarian Center, has clients who swear by natural flea control methods.

If it works, use it

Dr. Felser isn't sure if any of the unconventional methods are what's keeping fleas away, but she doesn't discourage their use. "If you find something that works for you, then stick with it," Dr. Felser says. "At least those products are natural."

But for Dr. Roberts, there's only one sure-fire method of flea prevention and eradication. "The chemicals are, unfortunately, the only way to go," the veterinary professor says.

People shouldn't worry about their pets having adverse reactions to chemical products, says Dr. Volk, the Lutherville veterinarian.

"The products are well-tested," he says. "People should follow the directions and don't overdo it," he adds.

But being well-tested doesn't necessarily mean all of the products are effective.

"In order to market flea control products, a company need only show their product is safe for use," he says. "Because only marginal effectiveness has to be demonstrated, there are many poor flea control products available."

Among the chemical-based products are dips, sprays, foams and collars for pets and foggers, or "bombs," that promise to eradicate fleas from the whole house (but not from the animal, who should not be in the house when foggers are used).

But don't just go out and buy something expecting an easy solution, Dr. Roberts says.

"You've got to have a plan of action. First get some advice from your vet. And realize that you may have to use a number of different products. What you use on the dog may not be appropriate for the cat. And what you use on the carpet won't be appropriate for either the dog or the cat," he says.

Killing them all

And realize that killing just the adult fleas won't help. There are adult fleas, eggs, larvae and pupae (cocoons), Dr. Roberts says. There are products that kill the first three but apparently no one has figured out how to kill the flea cocoons, researchers say. The only option is killing those fleas after they have "matured" from the cocoons -- which usually means repeated applications of a product are needed.

As for specific products, both Dr. Volk and Ms. Jackson cite collars as generally not being very effective as a method of flea control -- particularly for dogs.

"My experience has been that flea collars don't work on dogs but work better on cats," Ms. Jackson says.

"Collars are effective for [repelling] ticks but not for fleas," Dr. Volk says. "Fleas jump on and off a pet constantly," he says. Most collars are not effective because fleas won't stay around them long enough for the pesticides to work.

However, among others, some fairly new products on the market seem to help control the little pests. One is called Defend EXspot for dogs, he says.

"It's a paste material applied to the neck and absorbed within the skin," Dr. Volk says. Defend EXspot is an insecticide that uses a formulation of permethrin to kill the parasites.

But Dr. Volk thinks even this product won't be totally effective. "With dogs, we mention Defend. But by itself, it is not a complete protection. But combined with spraying or dipping, or shampoo, then the Defend is a great option," he says.

Another option is to have someone treat your home while you and the vet take care of the animal. "It kills the eggs, the larvae and the adult fleas," says Chuck Sheldon, a regional manager for Fleabusters, a Florida-based company. It does not kill the flea cocoons but once the fleas "matures," then they will die, he says.

Levels of toxicity

Mr. Sheldon says the company uses a polyborate powder. "We use about a pound for a room," says Mr. Sheldon. "I can't tell people that it is nontoxic, but it is no more toxic than table salt," he says.

However, Dr. Kramer, the National Pest Control Association's entomologist, says there's a problem with the Fleabusters treatment.

"It will work, but toxicity is only one aspect when looking at products," says Dr. Kramer. "You have to also look at the quantity. The drawback is that they have to use too much, which could be a harmful," he says.

Dr. Kramer prefers using other products that use lower quantities of chemicals.

Popular options for cats are flea powders or foaming mousse -- for obvious reasons: Cats do not like to be bathed or sprayed.

Relatively new ingredients known as "insect growth regulators" are proving to be effective for keeping baby fleas from maturing, Dr. Kramer says. It's fairly new to the market and now available by names including Methoprene and Fenoxy- carb.

Another new product just beginning to show up is a floor trap with an adhesive coating that flashes an intermittent yellow/green light. Studies have shown that fleas are attracted to this light, the entomologist says.

Sometimes it takes a house and/or yard spraying to get rid of fleas.

"I've walked in houses that were so infested the fleas jumped off the carpet and onto my pants leg," says Kevin Kordek.

Making a choice

Mr. Kordek is a vice president for Home Paramount, one of the area's large pest control companies. The chemicals Home Paramount uses are toxic, he says.

"But toxicity is a relative subject. The material is designed to kill, but the poisons are measured in relation to body weight. A 'flea-sized' dosage is used," says Mr. Kordek, who's also an entomologist.

The dosage should not harm humans (unless someone is allergic to a specific chemical) as long as the instructions are followed, he says. The instructions typically include remaining out of the home for a few hours.

And sometimes that method is necessary, even for people who despise chemical treatments.

"I hate harmful, toxic chemicals," says Ms. Jackson, who will not use them on her animals as a way to prevent fleas.

"Unless, you have fleas," she says. "Then I'm a great believer in harmful, toxic chemicals. If you get fleas, you just have to get into the chemicals big time."

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