Though they are
hearty eaters when the opportunity presents itself, fleas can fast for
impressive lengths of time—up to three or four months. This explains the
unpleasant experience a lot of families have had with fleas. Let us say our
Happy Family heads off on a month-long summer vacation. Its members shut up the
house and take the pets with them or else give them to a vet or a neighbor they
dislike. In any event, when Happy Family steps inside the door on its return it
is met by a blizzard of fleas. In a few moments all those tanned plump legs and
pink midriffs are covered with the insects, and the biting, stinging, cursing
and recriminations begin. There has not been a massive invasion of fleas from
someplace else as Happy Family believes. It is just that the fleas left behind,
reinforced by whatever adults hatched during the month, are ravenous, and
rather than being dispersed as they usually are on various pets, they
congregated in the middle of the living room rug, impatiently awaiting
vibrations and the emanations of carbon dioxide that announced chow.
When a flea
bites, as is the case with mosquitoes and other bloodsuckers, certain
allergy-causing proteins are injected into the tiny wound, causing swelling,
irritation and itching. Some victims are more sensitive to flea bites than
others. But given our nimble fingers, large hairless areas of skin and the
habit of sluicing down with water, we humans are reasonably well equipped to go
one-on-one against a flea. Other animals are not so fortunate. A cat or dog is
seldom able to rid itself of these parasites.
The flea is a
host to other microscopic internal parasites. And there is a kind of mite that
clings to the flea and rides around with him, just as fleas travel around on
the rest of us. This being the case, the famous lines of Dean Swift, though
they were embedded in a literary kind of lecture, are not bad natural history.
They run: Hobbes clearly proves that every creature / Lives in a state of war,
by nature: / So, naturalists observe, a flea / Hath smaller fleas that on him
prey; / And these have smaller fleas to bite 'em; / And so proceed ad
infinitum. / Thus every poet, in his kind, / Is bit by him that comes
Fleas having been
aggravating for as long as we have been around, it is not surprising that a
good bit of human ingenuity and energy has been devoted to doing something
about them. Virtually every known substance from asafetida to zinc has been
tried as a flea bane. A lot of prayers, curses, incantations and hexes have
been directed against them as well. According to legend, one anti-flea system
was invented by a medieval Spanish physician who developed a secret powder and
instructed purchasers of his preparation to use it as follows: first they were
to catch a flea, then "open its mouth, and place the powder inside. If this
course is followed death is guaranteed."
were filled with dogs, cats, falcons and people and therefore, not
surprisingly, fleas. They especially troubled high-society ladies, who, because
of their voluminous clothing and notions of gentility, were unable to get in a
good public scratch at their tormentors. In consequence, it became fashionable
to carry flea sticks, somewhat as grandes dames later were to sport lorgnettes.
Flea sticks were elaborately carved ivory rods with which one could elegantly
dig about underneath garments and amid elegant coiffures. Another device was
the flea pendant, a tube-like creation hung on a ribbon and suspended in the
d�colletage. The tube was perforated and inside it was an adhesive stick. Fleas
were supposed to crawl in the holes of the pendant and become ensnared in the
stickum. Flea collars, swatches of fur, were also popular among the gentry. The
idea was that fleas would crawl into these neckpieces. When they became full
they would be given to a servant who would take them outside and dispose of the
fleas. The arrangement may or may not have been effective, but in time the flea
collar became a status symbol, indicating that the wearer was both fastidious
and rich enough to afford one.
battle against fleas continues unabated and new weaponry is now available. Many
contemporary authorities recommend a two-pronged attack. First, attempts should
be made to make the immediate environment as unattractive to fleas as possible.
As noted, this could be done by shutting off the heat, removing all the
furniture and cutting holes in the roof so that puddles of water collect on the
floor. This would probably do the job on fleas (just like opening their mouths
and pouring powder down their throats would), but there are less drastic if not
quite so thorough tactics. The first order of business is to dust, vacuum,
sweep and shake so as to dispose of as many eggs, larvae and cocoons as
possible. It is recommended that the bedding used by pets be removed and
cleaned on a weekly basis. This sounds fine, but in many households, such as
ours, taking out all the chairs and sofas and shaking them every Saturday can
get to be very tedious.
should be sprayed or dusted with an insecticide. For household use the USDA
recommends preparations that contain methoxychlor, malathion, pyrethrum or
rotenone, so long as the proper precautions aimed at keeping the user from
being poisoned are followed. Many of the flea-management tracts point out that
these measures must be used "repeatedly," which means that keeping down
fleas is more or less a lifetime occupation.
The second step
in flea control is to go after the adult insects. There are special combs,
which if used daily will remove all fleas. This is a good method if you keep
only a Chihuahua but does not leave much time for anything else if the
establishment includes five retrievers, two cats, a ferret and a spider monkey.
There are also a lot of commercial sprays, powders and soaps, which if used
"repeatedly" will keep down the fleas. Finally, there is a relatively
new device that has now been on the market for about a decade—the flea collar.
The first generation of flea collars were impregnated with an insecticide that
wafted vapors over the animal and did the business on fleas.
knocked the vapor-type collars on the grounds that in addition to being bad for
fleas, they were bad for the animals wearing them. A study by Washington State
University scientists found that the collars caused loss of appetite,
listlessness and impairment of coordination among cats tested experimentally.
Others claimed that collars sometimes caused allergic reactions in pets and, of
all things, more itchiness.
sellers of flea collars discounted these complaints, saying, in effect, that if
they were not absolutely false, they were very seldom true. In response to the
flap about the Washington State report, a spokesman for Hartz Mountain
Corporation, a pet supplier big in flea-collar circles (selling some $25
million worth a season), said that only about one pet in 100,000 might be
mildly affected by the devices and then usually because the collar has been
drawn too tightly around the animal's neck.