Scratch-Itch Season of the Flea Returns : Consumers: Experts recommend some preventive measures to head off the invasion. If an infestation does occur, veterinarians can offer some solutions.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On guard, consumers: It's flea time again. And this year there are two kinds of the tiny biting insects that may terrorize you and your pets.

The cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis) that usually invades Southern California yards and homes with the summer heat and humidity is being joined this season by another variety, the sticktight flea (Echidnophaga gallinacea), which is not normally found on domestic cats and dogs.

Both fleas are blood-sucking insects that cause animals and their owners to itch and scratch. But the female sticktight attaches itself to the skin, much like a tick, and doesn't hop around. The sticktight is a third smaller than the tiny cat flea, so it is even harder to see.

"The sticktight flea is not new in Los Angeles, but it is being newly encountered in domestic pets," said Gail Van Gordon, public health entomologist with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. "It is normally found in the rodent population in the more remote, higher areas. But with the drought, rodents are coming down from the upper areas and the flea migrates with its natural host."

Swell, so that's all sticky, smoggy Los Angeles needs this summer: a double dose of acrobatic critters (fleas can jump 13 inches horizontally; eight inches straight up).

What to do? Practice a little preventive flea medicine.

Van Gordon recommends that Southern Californians "step up their normal flea eradication process." Spray yards with "any recommended insecticides," she advised, even if you haven't noticed a flea infestation yet.

Health experts and veterinarians recommend yard pesticides with limited toxins, such as natural pyrethrins or synthetic products that duplicate pyrethrin. It also is better to spray lesser amounts more often.

"Natural pyrethrins are a product of chrysanthemums, and the man-made ones are chemicals, but they're both very safe," said Dr. William Bender, a Granada Hills veterinarian who specializes in animal skin problems. "They can be used on dogs daily."

Clear underbrush on your property "to make it inhospitable to rodents," said Van Gordon. "Remember that chain link fencing does nothing to keep out rodents."

And limit access of food outdoors. "Don't leave the dog or cat food out until the next day," she said, explaining that opossums, which carry cat fleas, will live near a home once they discover pet food outside.

Be advised that if your yard does become flea-infested, Van Gordon explained, "you are in violation of a portion of the (Los Angeles County) health code."

If the health services department gets complaints about flea-infested properties, it sends owners a notice asking them to take care of the problem. If a second complaint is received, the county will inspect the property and serve notice, which can lead non-complying owners into hearings at the health services offices. Still no results? The case goes to the city attorney or district attorney.

If fleas are in your yard, chances are they're in your home, too, living on your pet and in carpets or crevices of hardwood floors. Vacuuming your home two or three times a week can help keep down a small, inside flea population. But remember to dispose of the vacuum bag or cut up a flea collar to keep in the bag.

There are many, many natural products, shampoos and sprays, in pet stores to keep fleas off your pets; some veterinarians now manufacture their own lines. "There are many good products on the market to deal with a flea problem, but you have to keep on top of it," said Carol McDonald of Bills' Tropical Imports, a Los Feliz pet shop. "There's a new one called Shield--one formula for dogs and another for cats--that we're using here." It has a polymer that "coats the fur so the fleas don't get on them."

Dr. Dawn Curie Thomas of the Southern California Veterinary Hospital and Animal Skin Clinic in Woodland Hills developed her own line of natural products for dogs and cats--Veterinarian's Best--and is marketing it nationwide.

"I created them for my own clients because I just didn't want to have to use all those medications for the skin problems, especially cortisone and steroids," Thomas said. "I just knew there was a better way."

Thomas, a member of the American Academy of Veterinary Dermatology, has developed a natural solution she calls Hot Spots, designed to soothe the common allergic reaction many cats and dogs have to fleas.

For the home, there are many commercial flea bombs and sprays. But consumers should check out their contents and avoid those with "heavy" (petrocarbon) chemicals that might cause toxic reactions in animals or owners. Follow the directions carefully.

Environmental concerns about pesticides have led consumers to search for safe, natural ways to exterminate fleas. "People are becoming very educated," Bender said. "They come in here asking for safe things" to get rid of fleas.

Jay Tallon, of Tallon Termite and Pest Control in Redondo Beach, the firm that developed the "blizzard" system to freeze rather than poison termites, observed: "Environmentally safe pest control is the wave of the future. People are more aware about these chemicals than they were 15 or 20 years ago."

Tallon has a non-chemical pilot program for ridding homes of fleas by dry steaming carpets--at 250 degrees Fahrenheit--then sprinkling rugs with an insect growth regulating powder, a synthetic hormone that interrupts the flea life cycle. Tallon calls it "birth control for fleas," and notes that it disrupts the life cycle of juvenile fleas, while the heat kills adult fleas.

Steaming costs $245 for a 2,000-square-foot home, a follow-up visit $59.50. Tallon also offers home treatment with a citrus-based spray, ($145 for a 2,000-square-foot home). A citrus-type yard spray is also available.

"We get the consumers involved in what we're doing and educate them," Tallon said. "We make sure that they're doing their part. If they won't cooperate with us, our system won't work. We want them to pick up around the places where the cat lays or clean up outside where the dog is. Those are harboring areas for fleas."

Another nontoxic, indoor approach to flea killing is offered by Fleabusters Inc., which guarantees customers a flea-free home for a year after a two-step patented powder process (which company representatives advise will not work in homes with hardwood floors). Its prices are based on the number of rooms; a carpeted, three-bedroom, living-dining room costs about $185 to treat.

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