Sun Tzu and The Art of The Flea War

“Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.”
~Sun Tzu

Fleas are one of the most common causes of health problems in pets; and certainly the most common parasite problem we deal with on a daily basis. Our shelves are stocked with products to eradicate fleas, and medications to treat the diseases they cause.

Every day we give the “flea talk” to pet owners when we find the nasty little beggars crawling around causing Fifi to itch, scratch, dig, chew, stink, scoot, and bleed. Did you know lap dogs were bred in the dark ages to attract the fleas off of the filthy lords and ladies of the castle? Fleas are everywhere in every part of the world. And when the world as we know it is destroyed by a giant meteorite, nuclear war, global warming, aliens, or a zombie apocalypse, two things will survive: fleas and Keith Richards (seriously, you can’t kill that guy).

“What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.”
~Sun Tzu  

Are flea remedies effective?

Yes, we’ve made progress in the struggle against the mighty flea, but there’s been no unconditional flea surrender. It’s not that they’ve adapted to our new weaponry or changed tactics, they simply seek to win the war by overwhelming us with superior numbers.

During my 23-year career as a veterinarian, flea prevention strategies have changed dramatically from flea shampoossprays, and powders to very high tech monthly topical treatments and flea pills. The first “flea pill” program came out in about 1995 and it was a game changer. For the first time in the recorded history of the flea wars, we could suddenly treat or prevent a flea problem with a monthly oral medication. Since then, many other wonderful monthly flea preventatives have been introduced. When used properly, most products work incredibly well.

Unfortunately, they work so well they’ve lulled us into a kind of laziness about flea prevention. Now most believe all they have to do is give a pill and poof! the flea problem disappears like magic. Sort of, but not quite.

“It is imperative to contest all factions for complete victory so the army is not garrisoned.”
~Sun Tzu

Flea control requires knowledge …

To effectively do battle against your flea enemy, you must have at least a basic understanding of the flea life cycle. The adult flea lives 99% of its life on your pet. That is where it feeds, breeds, and lays eggs. Everywhere your pet goes, those eggs are falling off into the environment. They fall into the carpet, rugs, couches, dog beds, yard, and human beds. Those eggs hatch out as larvae that feed off on organic debris like skin flakes and flea poop. The larvae then cocoon themselves and eventually hatch out as an adult flea that immediately jumps onto the first available host. The problem lies in the fact that most monthly flea preventatives only address the adult flea part of the problem while there are still bazillions of fleas at varying stages of the life cycle waiting to turn into adult fleas and jump onto your pet and cause misery. The eggs, larvae, and cocoons all need to be addressed, or you will not achieve ultimate victory.

… and a household appliance

While home sprays, bombs, and powders have their place, the most effective weapon you have in your arsenal is the humble vacuum cleaner. So vacuum like crazy. Vacuum under the beds, under the sofa cushions, and in the closets. When you are exhausted from vacuuming,  start all over again. You have to get rid of all those suckers, then get rid of the vacuum cleaner bag or they will crawl out. Yard flea control is helpful, too. Fleas don’t like bright sunlight so you only need spray the shaded areas under bushes, under decks, and in dog houses and sheds where pets can go.

“The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought.”
~Sun Tzu

Flea meds – always, always ask your veterinarian

Not all flea preventatives are equal. There are many flea medications you can buy off the shelf at places like feed stores and grocery stores that are worthless. Some are downright dangerous to use on your pet. I’ve treated many pets for toxicities from over-the-counter products. Do your homework. If you have a flea problem, consult with your veterinarian. And although the products veterinarians sell may be more expensive, the flea meds at Joe Bobs Feed and Seed may be deadly; and nor is it likely Joe Bob knows the enemy as well as your veterinarian does. Your veterinarian’s advice is worth a great deal; they can tell you how to address your specific problem with the most appropriate products. In the end, you’ll likely save time and money.

“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.” Sun Tzu

Flea prevention for cats

There are battles that may be impossible to win. For example, if you have five indoor-outdoor cats being exposed to fleas from stray cats, raccoons, and opossums you’re going to find it very difficult and costly to keep your flea issue under control. The best is to keep a strict monthly regimen of topical flea prevention on all of those cats. If those cats also live with your five dogs, those dogs will also need to be on a regular preventative. You can’t ignore the one dog that doesn’t seem bothered by the fleas because as long as there’s one source of “safe” blood in the house, you’ll continue to have fleas hatching in your home. However, if you have a manageable number of pets in your home, and you can provide them all with flea control, you can, with enough time, patience, and work, achieve a flea-free environment.

Sun Tzu was right 2000 years ago and he is still right today. Know your enemy. Know how to defeat your enemy. Formulate an effective battle plan based on the strengths of your army and weaknesses of your enemy’s army. Go to war knowing that you can achieve victory.

~ Dr. Randy Eisel

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