Getting the lowdown on an itchy problem

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As soon as you mention the word fleas almost everyone begins to scratch and itch, unfortunately they are very common at this time of year and spread quickly.

Fleas are picked up from other pets through direct contact, or through visiting other houses where fleas may be present. Fleas can also be picked up outside, especially in areas where other pets or wildlife are found.

Only the adults live on your dog and drink its blood; in the early stages, they live free in the environment, ie your home. For every flea you see running through your pet’s fur, there may be hundreds of young fleas waiting to hitch a lift on your pet or worse, you!

Adult females lay eggs in the environment and in fur. They are pearly white and about the size of a grain of salt. Each female can produce dozens of eggs every day. Hatching can occur in two days to two weeks, depending on the temperature, and maggot-like larvae emerge. They hide in carpets, cracks in the floor, or in dogs’ bedding. They feed on dust and the droppings of adult fleas.

The larvae spin a cocoon and develop inside this. Fully-formed fleas can live in this cocoon for up to a year if it is not warm enough for them to come out. The adult flea breaks out of its cocoon and looks for food. If it cannot find a dog or cat it will hop using its strong back legs onto any warm-blooded animal that passes by, including us.

Centrally-heated homes provide ideal conditions for a flea to grow. Most adults live for two to three months.

Fleas are the most common cause of skin disease in cats and dogs. They can create red spots where they have been feeding and cause the animal to be incredibly itchy. This causes the animal to scratch and bite at the affected areas.

When on your animal, fleas particularly like to bite along their back, tummy and the inside of their back legs. Flea saliva contains chemicals which stop blood clotting until the flea has finished feeding and these chemicals cause an allergic reaction.

Flea allergy dermatitis is incredibly common and unbelievably itchy. The resultant licking, chewing and scratching can lead to hair loss, self-induced trauma and infection.

Sometimes a crusty rash will develop. Skin problems may continue long after the flea has gone, but should eventually disappear if you treat your pet to kill fleas and continue treatment to stop them returning.

If you are worried that your pet has fleas, it is a advisable to contact your vet.

By RICHARD FLOOK, Vet