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Flea Fighters

Groomers can be an integral part of successfully addressing and preventing flea infestations, provided they know how to tackle the issue both in the salon and in pets’ homes.



Fleas are a problem no pet owner wants to have. As groomers, we end up having to address the issue on three different fronts. First, we have to ensure that any pet entering our salon with fleas leaves with none. Second, we need to ensure that the fleas carried into our salon on a pet don’t stay there or spread to another pet. Third, and often most time consuming, we have to go over future flea treatment and prevention with the pet owner.

All three of these fronts require groomers to have a pretty good understanding of the lifecycle of fleas, as well as the available solutions.

To kill fleas on pets, many salons are both giving a flea bath and administering an oral treatment called Capstar. Capstar tablets can be used on both dogs and cats, begin working within 30 minutes and are more than 90-percent effective on dogs within four hours, reducing the risk of fleas in the salon. Readily available through several distributors, it is an over-the-counter product generally considered safe to use. However, as with any untested flea product, groomers may want to check with their local veterinarian before using Capstar.

The next question is, of course, what shampoo to use to kill the fleas. It should be a product both the groomer and his/her clientele are comfortable using. Flea shampoos with an active pesticide are desirable if there is a high level of flea infestation, or if customers directly ask for them. Pyrethrins are the most commonly used, and one of the safest yet effective pesticides. Groomers should be careful to check their local ordinances and laws before using pesticide-based products; in many states or counties, a license is required.

Other shampoos do not contain pesticides, such as Natural Chemistry’s DeFlea, which uses ingredients that soften the waxy exoskeleton of the flea to kill it. Some shampoos have no pesticides but have ingredients—often herbs or essential oils—considered to have qualities that will help kill or repel fleas. Cedar, rosemary, peppermint, clove, neem oil, lemongrass, lavender and citronella are just a few examples.

Most of the non-pesticide products are not expressly labeled to kill fleas, since they don’t contain pesticides. In addition, once the flea-killing claim is made, Environmental Protection Agency labeling rules and expenses come into play. Instead, the labels for these products will say they alleviate symptoms of flea-bite dermatitis, address insect-related skin problems, relieve itching, repel pests or something similar.

Most experienced groomers will say that any shampoo that suds up and is massaged into the coat for 10 to 15 minutes will kill fleas. However, this should not be advertised as a flea-killing method, because if an animal has a reaction to a product that is being used off label, the groomer will have all of the liability. This goes for any home recipes as well. If it is not labeled to kill fleas, and the customer comes back demanding a $45 refund for a flea bath that didn’t work, it can be difficult to argue.

Whatever a groomer uses to kill fleas, they must read labels with great care. Many products that are perfectly safe for dogs can actually kill a cat. There are seemingly innocuous ingredients that work great on the dog but a cat cannot process at all, leading to liver or kidney damage long after the bath.


Protecting the Salon
The first line of defense in avoiding the spread of fleas in a grooming salon is meticulous checking as pets come in, especially at high-risk times of the year. If fleas are found, bathe or segregate the dog immediately. Green Acres Kennel Shop in Bangor, Maine, has offered boarding, daycare, retail pet food and supplies, grooming, and training for 18 years. Co-owner Don Hanson teaches employees to carefully check for fleas or flea dirt. “We check them right while the customer is there,” says Hanson. “We flea-comb the base of the tail and the belly on both dogs and cats.”

Using a good flea spray in any areas where fleas may have gotten is usually effective. Some groomers put a flea collar in the shop vacuum, to make sure any critters sucked up are killed. If there is any chance that fleas have taken up residence in the store, a flea bomb or thorough spraying may be necessary.

It is important to have a salon protocol for fleas, and to make sure that all employees follow it. This way, if a customer ever claims his dog got fleas in the salon, the shop owner will have specifics to explain why that is unlikely.


Home Treatment & Prevention
Addressing flea treatment and prevention with pet owners centers mainly on educating clients. They may not understand just how difficult eradicating this pest can be. It is an easy trap for groomers to assume the customer knows what we professionals consider basic information, but they may not. Most pet owners don’t think their cat has fleas just because their dog does. Explain that most of the lifecycle of the flea is spent off the pet, and hatching fleas will latch on to the next pet that walks by.

Having a handout on the lifecycle of the flea, or a list of useful websites, can save a lot of time. It may also impress clients with the potential magnitude of the problem while at least getting the basics across.

Fleas are quick, and they are small—two to four millimeters (1/8 inch). For every flea you see, there are, on average, 10 more that you don’t. Adult fleas eat blood (up to once per hour), making small cuts to do so. Once blood is digested, the flea excretes the rest, leaving “flea dirt”—small, dark, comma-shaped specks—on the pet’s skin. Not sure if it’s flea dirt or regular dirt? Dampen a paper towel with a little warm water, and try to smear the dirt. If it smears, especially with a dark reddish tint, it’s flea dirt. If it rolls and leaves no mark, it’s dirt.

Adult female fleas lay eggs (25 to 40 a day), which fall off the animal and hatch into larvae in two to five days. Larvae hang around pet areas (beds, carpets), eating any organic matter. In about one or two weeks, the larvae turn into pupae, which develop into adults to start the cycle again in about another one or two weeks. But here’s the catch: if conditions are not right or food sources are not available, pupae can survive for several months inside a dwelling (or outdoors in warm weather) and quickly emerge into adults when stimulated by vibrations produced by an approaching pet or person. Adult fleas can survive for weeks indoors with no food, although they won’t lay eggs until a blood meal is found. So, even if fleas are not seen on the pet, part of the lifecycle may still be present, waiting for optimum conditions.

Because larvae and pupae are not easily seen, the best thing pet owners can do to battle these pests is vacuum often. They should then throw the vacuum bag away, outside of the house, immediately. In addition to flea-combing the pet and dropping fleas into a bowl of soapy water, pet owners should also put a pan of soapy water under a nightlight near where the dog sleeps. Fleas can skate along water, but soap breaks the surface tension, so they fall in and drown.

There are products based on borax or diatomaceous earth that desiccate the flea, killing it. Also, if the pet owner spends the money to hire a professional to apply those products in the home, they may offer a guarantee to come back if fleas appear again.

Flea collars and sprays, of course, will help. However, the most common flea solution is a topically applied chemical—some prescription only, others OTC.

Loren Cohen, DVM, of Weymouth, Mass., is board certified in veterinary dermatology. She sees a lot of skin issues related to fleas as some dogs are allergic to them, leading to incessant scratching and secondary skin problems.

 “My number-one suggestion for groomers would be to require that all dogs entering the shop be on monthly flea prevention when seasonally appropriate,” she says. “Either a topical or oral flea product will work, but owners should keep them on it, once a month on a single EPA or FDA approved product. Most products that are, or began as, prescription only, are held to a higher level of quality control and are therefore safer. It’s very important to be sure that all animals in the house and environment are flea free, as it does not take more than a few bites for a severe flare up of flea allergies.”

Hanson recommends pet owners who bring their dogs to Green Acres Kennel Shop get topical flea treatments through their veterinarian. “A vet should assess all the pets in the home and the family situation and determine what’s best,” he says. “Customers see the groomer more than their vet, so certainly discuss options, but know at what point to recommend consulting with a vet.”

One of Hanson’s big cautions for other business owners is to use care in using, applying or recommending flea products. Some shouldn’t be given if cats are even in the same household, and some dog breeds are sensitive to certain chemicals. “It’s also important that groomers keep themselves educated about what products are currently available,” he says.

Veterinarians are likely to appreciate salon owners’ efforts to educate clients. “Groomers look so much more closely than owners do, so they are likely to see skin problems,” Cohen says. “And groomers are good at knowing what is normal. When it isn’t, they can point it out to the owner and suggest a veterinary consultation.”


Carol Visser is a Nationally Certified Master Groomer and Certified Pet Dog Trainer. Formerly a pet product expert for PetEdge, she and her husband Glenn now own Two Canines Pet Services in Montville, Maine, which provides grooming, boarding, training and day care services to Waldo County.

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