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Flea circus

(Updated Oct. 13, 2012 at 2 pm MDT)

For the last week, my home has been a three-ring flea circus. And I mean that in the most negative way possible.

A week ago, on May 3, I got it into my head to treat both my dog and cat for fleas. Not that I’d seen any. The poor dog scratches constantly, probably from grass allergies; the vet insisted several years ago that Denver is too high and too dry for fleas. But I thought just in case …

So I bought (from the vet $$$$$$$!!) Frontline Plus for the cat and Parastar for the dog (Internet scuttlebutt is that Frontline for dogs no longer works). Three months’ worth for both pets. Both are the kind of liquid stuff you apply to a pet’s skin between the shoulder blades and fleas are supposed to start dying within an hour or two.

Well, apparently a few of those dying fleas were really pissed and managed to pass the word to their families before they died. “Get her!” they croaked. “Get that woman!”

And they did. In less than 24 hours, I was scratching and miserable. Worse, I’m allergic to the lil buggers, so all those bites raised hives — nice big red welts two inches across that itched like crazy. They homed in on panty and bra lines, biting along the edges of the elastic. None of that amateurish “attack the ankles” stuff for these guys. They just waited for my nice warm tush to settle into the couch or recliner and whee!

I’ve learned a lot about fleas since all this started:

  • You can virtually asphyxiate yourself with flea sprays and repellants if you aren’t careful, but you’ll keep spraying anyway.
  • There’s actually a psychosis you can develop when you’re under assault from insects you can’t see. Especially if you think they’re in your bed. And the body starts overreacting to even normal skin sensations. Paranoia!
  • Fleas may love chenille-upholstered sofas but they’re quite comfortable in leather recliners as well.
  • They won’t hang out on wooden chairs, but you won’t be comfortable there either.
  • Lawn furniture from the deck works well. No upholstery to shelter the fleas and plenty of air circulation to keep the itchy places cool (learned that years ago from an allergist — keep it as cool as you can stand).
  • A hippie-style muumuu with no underwear offers blessed relief and no elastic to aggravate hypersensitive allergy-prone skin.
  • Hives, as they resolve, turn to lovely bruises.
  • Extremely hot showers calm the itch; Internet searches confirmed that my accidental “discovery” is already well known. The theories vary between “cooking” the insect protein in the skin and temporarily overwhelming the body’s histamine response. Many people use hair dryers for spot treatment, and I can confirm it works. Shower or dryer, you need to use the hottest temp you can stand for at least 30 seconds, so they say.
  • You can take two 10-mg Zyrtecs without killing yourself. And you can take one or two 25-mg Benadryl tabs on top of that. In fact, when I finally got to the doctor yesterday, she prescribed Zyrtec to combat one of the body’s two histamines and a combination of Benadryl and Pepcid (yes, the antacid) to combat the other histamine. On top of all that, Caladryl, Benadryl cream, and/or cortisone cream as needed. And then she added what I really needed, a one-week round of prednisone to control the spiraling allergic reaction. (I’d had visions of calling 9-1-1 with an acute allergy attack.) Prednisone dosing has changed, apparently. I used to take it on a 7-6-5-4-3-2-1 schedule, but this time I was told 3-2-2-2-1-1-1.

I’d have bombed the house by now, but there’s a lot of prep work first if it’s to be effective, and I’ve gotten waaaay behind on my housekeeping. (A local company told me I would have to follow its bed bug instructions. Moving out would be easier! I called Terminix and got connected to some guy half way across the country who immediately started a sales pitch for a one-year contract. I tried Orkin, which has several local offices, and every number I called had been disconnected.) Figuring I’ll end up doing it myself, I’ve been hard at it for several days. Or at least as hard as a fat old couch potato can manage. The washer and dryer have been running constantly at their highest possible temperatures. A housekeeper is coming Monday to help out — a first for me. I’m in the clutches of the completely illogical “I’ve-got-to-clean-up-before-she-gets-here!” reaction (similar to the “I’ve-got-to-fix-my hair-before-I-go-to-the-salon” impulse). Then I’ll probably bomb the place myself.

Did you know there’s only one flea bomb on the market now (Bengal) that isn’t labeled “flammable”? Back in the old days we set those things off without a second thought. Now — I suspect more thanks to new government regulations than to a change in formula — they’re all flammable and you aren’t supposed to set them off without turning off all pilot lights and anything electrical that might cycle on and off, like the fridge. Piece of cake, unless, like me, you haven’t a clue as to how to safely turn pilot lights on and off, and you’re scared to death of messing with that sort of thing. That means calling in the utility company to do it. All that, plus coordinating getting yourself and the pets out of the house for anywhere from two to five hours, depending on the bombs. The pets will spend the time getting bathed at the vet while I go for a drive in the mountains because for whatever reason the dog seems to be scratching more now than before I treated her.

Anyway, by the time I got to the doctor yesterday morning, I was exhausted, miserable, utterly overwhelmed, and in tears. I almost hugged her for seeing me within two hours of the time I called in — I’d been steeling myself for a dismally long wait at the urgent care clinic if necessary. And whatever the reason (proper treatment?), the itching seemed to stop and the hives seemed to be resolving by last night (psychosomagic relief?). The doctor treated it as an allergy — prescribing two different antihistamines, Pepcid (which she said has certain antihistamine properties), and prednisone — and it seemed to start working immediately. Definite improvement today, and so far … (shhhhh) no new “bites.” Or maybe I’m just not noticing as much since each one isn’t exploding into a big rosette.

I’m still afraid to sit on the couch or recliner, but the bed seems safe again after several rounds of washing the sheets, blanket, and comforter, and spraying the area. I’d been thinking of replacing the couch anyway; “soon” now seems like a good idea. Keeping the dog off the new one will be tough, though; she’s spoiled rotten. I’m thinking of a lighter color and maybe a microfiber.

Through all this, would you believe, I’ve not seen a single flea? Not one. Maybe it’s because of my new farsightedness or maybe I’m imagining things (imaginary hives?). I bought a cheap little flea trap (a nightlight over a sticky pad) hoping for confirmation and all it has caught in a week is a single solitary gnat. Fleas are still the best guess, with a dog that’s outside a lot or inside on the couch or bed. More importantly, no signs of bed bugs on or around the bed. (Now I know why most mattress sets are white!)

It’s not over yet, of course. I don’t expect the circus to fold its tent until sometime next week. And leave it will, even if I have to don a respirator and crawl around on my hands and knees spraying every square inch of this place. I’m slowly making progress, physically and emotionally. At least I can go to bed without adding Valium to the above regimen. But I still throw in a spritz of insect repellent, just in case.

I just returned from Home Depot where I found Raid Fumigator. It’s a “dry fogger” like the Bengal brand mentioned above and is not flammable. No need to extinguish pilot lights. Hurray. It does mention that it will set off smoke detectors, so they should be temporarily disconnected.

Update: October 13, 2012: After all that, I’ve decided there never were any fleas. A few days ago I developed a long, itchy red welt along my elastic waistband, where I’d been leaning against a sofa pillow for several hours (very warm). Conclusion: sensitivity or allergy to elastic/rubber or some kind of urticaria. The doctor, after all, had treated it as an allergic reaction. So I employed the same treatment prescribed by the doctor last spring (minus the prednisone prescription) and by morning the welt was almost gone. Considering this has happened before (allergic skin reactions), I now think the whole “flea bite” thing was actually an allergic skin reaction to heat and/or elastic. Those stray bumps not along elastic lines were just more hives resulting from an extended, uncontrolled allergic reaction.


  1. OMG. What a nightmare.

    Your tale makes me think, PT, that you have bed bugs, not fleas. The reason I suggest this is that you haven’t seen fleas, and also what the vet said about high altitude. (That’s a new one to me.) Fleas are visible. If you turn your pet on her back they will be visible in the hair-free area (I call it the “park”). Bed bugs, I’ve heard, are hard to spot because they are not only smaller but nocturnal. BTW, Frontline works great on Winston, our little Yorkie.

    I wish you the best.

    • Besides not seeing any of the classic signs of bed bugs (although I’m not seeing fleas either) is that the bites have tended to follow the lines of my underwear. Also my watchband. Things I don’t wear at night. Plus I’ve been aware of being bitten while sitting in the living room. I got a couple of more bites last night in the living room that I thought I felt at the time, but they weren’t visible until this morning.

  2. It’s not fleas. I adopted a kitten once – can’t recall where from – and didn’t realize it had fleas. After a while, I noticed I was getting bites, but hey… that was Indiana in the summer, lots of bugs. Then almost overnight, the carpet was infested with fleas! And I mean infested!! They reproduce rapidly. When I would walk inside my apartment and look down at my calves, there would be at least a dozen fleas there. At least.

    I tried all the bombs and household type sprays I could find. Did not work at all.

    Finally, I called in exterminator and told him the story. But also told him I was a poor college student and just could not afford a visit from a professional exterminator. So, he told me what to do…. (Now, mind you, this was back in 1994). I had to go to a Home Depot type store (this was before those existed). And in some section there was this gallon of flea spray. It was the strongest available directly to consumers. It came with a hand-sprayer – the kind where the thin hose goes down into the container, screws on, and another couple of feet of tubing to the hand spray. So, I used that and sprayed my entre apartment, which really was not that big. I mean everywhere! And, thankfully, it worked.

    Never again will I bring an animal with fleas into my home. Down here in NM, we don’t have fleas, thankfully. Too dry. They don’t like the desert.

    But the one ingredient that is crucial in killing fleas is Pyrethrins. It’s in flea shampoos and other flea products. That will kill fleas instantly. I’m not sure if the bombs had that in them or not, but if they did, then the concentration was too weak to do anything.

    When I worked at the vet many moons ago, people would bring their dogs and cats in for flea baths. Guess who the lucky person was…. me. The dogs weren’t so bad… but the cats were awful. Had a cat one time that was horribly infested with fleas. I would lather up the pet, and I mean really lather it. Then I would search through their fur and find all the fleas I could. Pull them off, then “pop” them by setting them down on the counter by the sink (they’re rather comatose from the shampoo – or possibly dead already, but I wanted to make sure) then I would use the flat of my thumbnail and press down hard until I heard and felt it “pop.” That when I knew it was dead for sure. They’re very thin in height, so the only was to smash them was using my thumbnail.

    If you are not seeing fleas, especially when you come inside and don’t see them on your ankles and calves. then you don’t have fleas. I agree with Jim above… sounds like bed bugs. Wow… I hope not. I really hope not.

    • At this point it’s a mystery. I’ve yet to see either a flea or a bed bug, or evidence of either (but without reading glasses on, all specks look the same). Maybe some kind of mite? Beats me. Very few new bites in the last three or four days, but I’m still very jumpy. Housecleaners coming tomorrow. Tuesday I’m leaving dog and cat at vet for baths and thorough flea and skin checks while I do the Raid Fumigator (permethrin, a pyrethroid, is primary ingredient). I’ll probably repeat the Raid once or twice more, at weekly intervals. Maybe by Wednesday, I’ll be able to relax a bit. And I may finally treat myself to a new couch, if I can make up my mind about upholstery and styling. At the very least, all this has spurred a long overdue de-clutterizing of a house that’s really too small for me. I’ve got to come up with some storage solutions or just break down and pitch more stuff. We old ladies tend to cling to a lot memories.

      • Well, best of luck! Sounds like more of a “normal” mite issue. We all have them (shudder). Never hurts to have the pets checked out – then that will ease your mind. Oh, and fyi… Raid Fumigator sucks – from MY experiences anyway. That what I tried when my apartment was infested with fleas. I might have well have sprayed holy water around the place and tried to do an exorcism on the bastards. I spent freakin’ $100 some dollars on that and a few other Raid products, and this was 1994 and I was a student. You talk about hitting me hard in my bank account….. Anyway, keep us posted.

        • I was about ready to try anything. It was awful! I’m not kidding… I’d walk in and those bugger (literally) would be all OVER my ankles and calves instantaneously. When I called the exterminator, I was ready to beg for a payment plan, give him sex, something. But he was kind enough to tell me of the product at the hardware store to look for. That cost me less than $20.

"Nothing is more dangerous than ignorance and intolerance armed with power." ~ Voltaire

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