Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Ballad of the Prairie Flea

I have listened to my restless readers who have been quietly grumbling, "Ostriches, seeing eye dogs, killer rabbits, Christmas gerbils... that's all well and good, but when are you finally going to tell us something useful Schott? When??" When is now. My intent is to balance the blog between quirky animal stories, insights into the experience of being a veterinarian and actual pet health information.

Which brings me to fleas.

I'm willing to wager that if you were visiting your psychiatrist and he said "What's the first word that comes to mind when I say 'dog'?", a reasonable percentage of you would say "fleas" (those of you who didn't say "bone", which is worthy of a post on its own). Most cartoon dogs have fleas and children tune ukuleles to "my dog has fleas". An itchy dog is presumed by many to have fleas. But not so fast. Most of you reading this live on the Canadian Prairies, and woe betide the poor Prairie flea. You see, fleas love heat and fleas love humidity. Consequently there are many many many fleas in Tallahassee and no fleas at all in Tuktoyuktuk. For better or worse Winnipeg, and the rest of the Prairies, is a lot more like Tuktoyuktuk than Tallahassee. Next time you're in Florida pay attention to how many veterinary clinics you see. A lot, right? Fleas. It's all because of fleas.

Despite this ground truth the culture still teaches people to assume that an itchy dog or cat has fleas. It used to be the number one myth I would bust. We would see the occasional case of fleas, perhaps two or three a year, versus the literally hundreds and hundreds of dogs and cats itchy because of allergies (yes, allergies - extremely common). I would marvel at this tough or perhaps misguided little Prairie flea and wonder how she got here and what her plan for the winter was. A year ago this would have been a quick and simple post to write - your pet does not have fleas. Done. This last fall however... something has changed. They are still very rare, but we had perhaps eight or ten cases, quadruple the average. We're not becoming Tallahassee any time soon, but we seem to be inching a little closer. Add fleas to your running list of climate change consequences. Al Gore didn't warn us about this.

And how do you know your pet has fleas? Ideally you see the mighty flea itself, but they are tiny and astonishingly quick and they are only on the animal to feed, the rest of the time they are - gulp - out and about in your house. Instead we rely on a gross flea fact. Fleas drink blood and then poop out the digested blood. Consequently flea poop looks like little black dirt particles in your pet's fur. Take one of these particles, place it on a white sheet of paper, wet it slightly and then streak it with your finger. If it streaks reddish brown, like the "Indian Red" in the old Laurentian pencil crayons, then you, my friend, have fleas in your house and it is time for you to panic. No, I'm kidding, you should never panic, but you should be very slightly grossed out. (Note: cats may groom the flea dirt off, complicating matters somewhat.)

I won't go into treatment in any detail except to say, perhaps predictably, that you should talk to your veterinarian as it is a bit complicated. However I will say a word about flea collars. That word is "useless". I have had clients come in and declare that the flea collar works well because Bozo doesn't have any fleas. This is akin to the man wearing the tinfoil hat declaring that it's working because aliens have not been able to zap him with mind control beams. The Prairie flea may have a little more swagger these days, but your pet would still have to be extraordinarily unlucky to encounter one.


  1. HA! That cartoon made me snicker out loud!

  2. Philipp Schott - can you please contact me? I seem to be having difficulty finding your e-mail address. I want to use your "my dog has fleas" cartoon but I am hoping you can give me a contact for permission? Rachel -