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A flea story

October 15, 2011
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I wanted to follow up the rat tale with a post that is nowhere near as exciting, but relates to the topic of uninvited (and in this case, nearly uncontrollable) guests in your home.

Look at the little guy go!

When mature, they are at their largest the size of a sesame seed and auburn in colour. You see them in corners, on beds, in cracks in the floor. Anyone who lives in your home has itchy spots on their feet and ankles, and maybe even some in their armpits. Your pet’s fur is riddled with black, flaky crap.

You have a flea infestation.

First, let me put my arms around you and rub your back. I’ll whisper in your ear that everything will be all right. And it will be; the problem, however, takes a few weeks or even a few months to solve, depending on the size of the infestation.

We had fleas. We have an indoor cat, and we’re still puzzling over how we got the infestation. Our vet reckons we brought eggs home with us after one of our many wilderness jaunts through the mud and grass. I know if I try to figure out WHY we got the fleas, I’ll drive myself crazy.

In late July, 2010, I had just put my son down for his nap and had scooped up our cat, Thor, to give him a snuggle. I was on my back with Thor asleep on my chest. I noticed a little brown thing, shiny like a beetle, appear in the white fur under Thor’s neck – his “cravat.” I immediately dove in with my fingers, trying to get whatever it was out, but it was gone. I had a crawling feeling on my skin. I had never seen a flea before. Our son, though, a few days before, had started getting spots that we assumed were chicken pox, even though he’d been vaccinated.

I remembered something I’d read about flea poos, and how if you want to check your pet for fleas you should rub them down with a wet paper towel, and any flea poos would stick to it and turn red (as they are in essence dried blood). I cut out the middle man, plopped Thor on our white coffee table and gave him the rubdown of his life, working my fingers into his fur like mad. Black bits were flying everywhere and, when I put one on my arm and moistened it with a bit of spit, it immediately started dissolving into a red gunk.

I found no actual fleas until brushing Thor later that day. There they were in the tines of the brush, brownish-red like a chestnut, larger than I expected. When I tried to squish them between my fingers, they didn’t die. Fleas are, you will find, extremely flat, and have a hard carapace like a cockroach, so are almost impossible to kill with your fingers. They really are an evolutionary marvel.

Fast-forward to a year and a half later. The fleas, knock on wood (hard) are a memory — albeit a really bad one. We live in a different home now. From the day I discovered that flea on Thor, I estimate it took us nine months to completely eradicate the fleas from our home. Now it took about two months to deal with the bulk of the infestation, but we continued to find a random flea, usually dead or dying, for months afterwards.

Getting to a flea-free state of being took a lot of work and a lot of stress. I would like to offer a few tips below to anyone who is going through a flea infestation. It can feel very violating having them in your house, as for quite awhile, nothing you do will seem to make a bit of difference. It feels like you have no control of the situation and your home can feel completely contaminated.

Know that killing adult fleas won’t get rid of the problem. You need to approach the infestation from several directions, but the crucial ones are to SPOT TREAT your pet, and KILL THE EGGS AND PUPAE. For every grown flea you see, there are thousands of eggs in your carpet/floorboards/pet’s bedding. It’s a horrid thought, I know. And a flea’s pupae can sit for months upon months in stasis, waiting to hatch.

First: treat your pet. Forget ANY product you can buy at the pet store, including shampoos, flea bombs, spot treatments, etc. This stuff is useless and many of the products can poison your pet. Plus, something like a shampoo will certainly kill any fleas on your pet, but it won’t prevent any from hopping back on and setting up residence anew.

We treated our cat first with ProMeris. It works the same as any other spot treatment – squeeze the liquid between your cat’s shoulder blades, where they can’t lick it off, and it both repels and kills fleas for a couple of months. I am still not sure how I feel about ProMeris. Firstly, it stinks like the worst kind of bug repellant. Really, really stinks. Think rotten Pine Sol. And imagine how much that would bug a cat. So, while the ProMeris did work on the flea issue, the smell was too unpleasant. For a second spot treatment, we used Advocate, which has no odour. Both of these products were purchased from our vet. We now once a month treat Thor with Stronghold, as it not only repels fleas through an ingenious method of being absorbed into and subsequently release by your pet’s sebaceous glands, but also deals with any internal parasites like worms and other such things that make me question God. Thor is an outdoor cat and is exposed to all sorts of interesting things out in the wild, and even though I am essentially poisoning him with this stuff every month, he and we are protected from the uninviteds.

We lived in a home with floorboards, not carpet; it turns out this is a shittier deal when it comes to a bug infestation, as the fleas could easily elude any treatment applied to the floor by just hiding under the floorboards. When we first discovered the problem, we hired a well-known local pest treatment agency to come in and squirt the floors down with poison. It cost hundreds of euro and in the end, only put a small dent in the flea population, even after multiple treatments. It also made Thor have a horrible sort of cat-fit (they reassured us that the poison is harmful only to bugs), during which he was completely tripping balls and shit himself, and had to be sequestered to the balcony for a few days.

I am a big fan of exterminators, but if you do want to go that route (and really, with fleas, I believe you don’t need to) try to find a private practitioner, rather than a chain.

We tried many different other methods of dealing with the fleas: flea traps (a novel idea, if not fundamentally flawed and also completely ineffective), pet-store-bought spray (useless and way too cancery-smelling), just vacuuming and prayers, etc. What ended up save us was the following: a combination of Indorex and Skoosh, two sprays bought from the vet, followed with a combination of Borax and diatomaceous earth. I had to buy the latter online, as neither appears to be sold in Ireland, but I have seen both available in shops in Canada.

Indorex is an effective pesticide, though you need to air out your flat afterwards as it’s highly toxic, and also remove any fish or other creatures to your balcony or a friend/neighbour’s house. It comes out like a mist rather than a spray and also smells deceptively nice. Skoosh is completely nontoxic — it’s a sillicone spray that bonds to the flea and paralyzes it. Sounds nasty, I know, but the fleas deserve that and worse. Apparently, and this is very important, both sprays kill fleas at all four stages of their development, so no eggs sitting in stasis waiting to be awakened!

Diatomaceous earth is a powder of ground-up fossil seashells. It’s fed to livestock to deal with worms etc. It has the texture of powdered chalk. I found the best way to apply it was to get a squeegee for cleaning the shower (1 euro at Ikea), and just squeegee it into all the cracks in the floor, paying special attention to corners, moldings, etc. I just left piles of the stuff around — under beds, mashed into every crack — and IT WORKED. I am not sure exactly how it kills fleas — I think it just slices them up, which they deserve as I said above. If you have fleas in your yard, I imagine scattering the DE hither and yon could deal with them.

The man in the video says he and everyone he knows take DE once a day “for health” — I am not sure what its benefits are specifically, but obviously it is not toxic in any way.

I have a bit of a phobia of fleas now, and continue to give Thor epic rubdowns on the offchance that he may have brought one in from outside (I haven’t found a single flea on him since we started spot treating him). We live in a much larger space now, and if we happened to get another infestation I have no idea what we’d do, considering the time and effort we needed to put into controlling an infestation in a very small 2-bedroom flat. During the worst of the infestation, I told myself regularly that they were small, and that they weren’t forever. And also that none of us were starving or dying — it really is a small problem in the whole scheme of things, even if it felt humungous and horrible.

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