I have a flea in my pants. Right now, as I’m writing this. I can’t find the little buggar yet, but I feel him biting his way up my calf. This has become a common occurrence in my home. Apparently I am sweet meat, a real flea magnet. Lucky me.
So here I sit on the 4th of July, the birthday of our nation as well as the 8th birthday of sibling cats, Zelda and Laszlo. These feral creatures came into our lives at a mere 7 weeks old, and we have since done our best to be their faithful servants.
I have felt more and more like a servant lately, thanks to the thousands of other creatures who have taken up residence in our 800 square foot apartment here in San Francisco. Over the last six months we’ve had a siege of fleas – an infestation that has made our living quarters a living hell. How, you may ask, does this happen with two indoor-only cats? In our case, it’s as simple as taking out the trash. Those hungry bloodsuckers hang around the bins and then take a free ride in on my pants leg. All it takes is one pregnant flea to wreak havoc in this place.
Think I’m exaggerating? I’ve learned a lot about fleas in the past few months. One flea lays about 20 eggs a day, and averages 800-1000 eggs in its 1-3 month lifetime. In a few weeks, 1 flea becomes 20 and so on – all feeding on blood, mating and laying more eggs.
Bam. Instant infestation.
So here was my first idea: bring out the poison. I’ve always had good luck with topical solutions (the kind you apply to the nape of the cat’s neck). But this time it wasn’t working. I never saw any impact, nary a dead flea, after several rounds of Advantage. What I did see was lots of flea dirt. I’m referring to flea fecal matter made of dried blood (gross), which is what flea larvae feast on as they grow (totally gross). My husband said he never saw a flea, but we had plenty of evidence that they were there.
Cats scratching all night (in the bed with us). Me waking up with bites on my body. The worst part – the part that made it unbearable – was that Laszlo developed a serious skin condition, basically an allergic reaction to the fleas that caused him to rip out huge clumps of bloody fur and skin. We had to shave poor Laszlo’s neck many times to help the wounds heal.
The vet prescribed prednisone pills for the itching, which helped temporarily. But the only real solution was to get rid of the fleas permanently. I stepped up the cleaning, brushed the cats daily and wiped all fabric surfaces with pet hair remover pads, which did a pretty good job of getting up the hair and flea dirt. Then our local pet store recommended diatomaceous earth.
Have you heard of this stuff? Diatomaceous earth (DE) is a fine, flour-like substance made up of the crushed up shells of algae from oceans and lakes. Food grade DE can be sprinkled all over the house; after a few hours it kills the fleas by drying out their exoskeletons. I am a big fan of DE, especially after discovering its human health benefits. But working with this stuff is one big awful mess. Only a desperate flea-crazed person would succumb to such torture. And desperate I am.
The first time we used DE, we put it absolutely everywhere – including on top of the bed. While the stuff is completely nontoxic (farmers feed it to livestock to prevent parasites) – it is a very, very fine powder (like talc). So imagine sleeping in a bed covered in powder with cats and people rolling around in it all night. Not good.
Our throats got chalky dry, our eyes red. Cloud poufs emerged everywhere we went for two days. And guess what? The fleas were gone! I did a little happy dance (after vacuuming and opening the windows and gasping for air, of course). The cats were happy, too – what a relief!
But a week or so later, fleas were once again doing their own happy dance on my bed. Know why? Because DE only kills the adult fleas; it cannot penetrate the eggs or pupae (cocoon phase). Turns out this is true of most flea treatments – those dastardly eggs/pupae are pretty much impermeable.
Three more attempts with DE and we were done. It broke our vacuum. And that, my friends, is what we call turning a corner. I am so thankful that our crappy, cheap vacuum literally bit the dust. Once again it was time to step up our game.
I read about a scientific study that said most fleas could be killed with vacuuming alone (96% of adult fleas and 100% of larvae and pupae). After reading this, I decided it was time to invest in a more powerful machine. We found our dream vacuum on sale at Macy’s for about $100: the Shark Navigator.
I’ve always hated vacuuming – it hurt my back and made me sneeze. But I am in love with the Shark. It is light and self-propelling and so powerful! With the attachments, I feel like a superhero sucking up every last crumb. And egg. I hope I’m sucking up lots of eggs.
I could tell the vacuum-only approach was helping, but the siege was far from over. Even with a thorough approach (vacuuming every 2-5 days), it seemed impossible to reach every egg. They are not really visible to the eye – you may notice something that resembles minuscule white grains of sand. And maybe you’re just looking at sand.
While eggs can hatch in as little as two days, flea pupae can languish in unsuspecting corners for months. They are triggered to adulthood by vibration (sound, heat, movement). So even if you’re sucking up most of them, the vibration of the vacuum can actually cause fleas to hatch.
What to do? I’m a sensitive girl. I don’t want to use insecticides – sprays and foggers seem way too toxic for the humans and pets in this small space. But I was willing to give the topical stuff another try. Last month I used Frontline Plus (the pet store guy said that Advantage and Frontline have to constantly tinker with their formulas to keep ahead of the fleas; each may have good years and bad years in terms of effectiveness). While it seemed to work a little better (I spotted a few dead fleas), it wasn’t enough on its own.
So last week I bought a flea comb. A big improvement over a regular pet brush. On the first day we pulled 18 fleas off the cats. Whoa! I know that’s got to be a small percentage, but it sure felt good to send those beasts to their death in a cup of hot soapy water. Since then we’ve been combing them diligently two times a day. The number of fleas fluctuates widely.
Are we beginning to see a pattern here? It doesn’t seem like there is any one solution. So today, I am claiming Independence Day from fleas by using a three-pronged attack:
1. Another round of Frontline Plus on the cats
2. Thorough vacuuming of all rooms (rugs, hardwood floors, upholstery)
3. Sprinkling and brushing DE into the rugs
Tomorrow I will vacuum up the DE and mop all floors. I am empowered by my new tools and am confident that this is the beginning of the end. I promise to provide updates!
Once again, my top five tools for flea control:
1. A great vacuum like the Shark
2. Pet hair remover – I use Scotch Fur Fighter sheets
3. Flea comb (mine is Safari comb for cats)
4. Diatomaceous earth – I started with this sprinkle jar (easy spreading), but you can also buy it in bulk
5. Monthly topical treatments (Advantage or Frontline)