Topical and oral flea control treatments are most effective
Fleas are more than an annoyance -- they can affect the health of their host dog or cat. A flea's saliva could trigger allergies, and the itching and scratching that ensue can lead to a more serious skin infection. Infected fleas can also transmit tapeworms and bacteria -- including bacteria that are harmful to humans. A large enough number of fleas can even cause life-threatening blood loss.
Unfortunately, fleas are not a problem that will go away on its own. In fact, ignoring a few fleas can quickly lead to an infestation. Female fleas can lay up to 50 eggs a day, many of which fall off and land in carpets, bedding and furniture. Once the larvae hatch, they remain inactive in cocoons for weeks or even months. Unsuspecting pet owners might think the problem is resolved after killing the adult fleas, but the life cycle will repeat weeks later unless eggs and larvae are prevented from maturing into adult fleas.
Experts say the only truly effective way to keep fleas off a dog or cat is with a topical or oral medication. Flea collars are generally described as ineffective and often toxic as well. Flea shampoos provide only immediate relief by killing adult fleas on the pet; they don't leave enough residue behind to kill new fleas as they hatch. As for flea dips, bombs, powders and sprays, many of them contain chemicals called pyrethroids, such as permethrin. Experts warn that these chemicals are highly toxic, especially to cats. Some vets say that products containing permethrin can be safe if you only have dogs in your household, but all warn to not use such products on cats or even on dogs if one is likely to come in contact with a cat. Permethrin comes in for the sternest cautions, but some experts also warn against the use of other pyrethroids as well.
Topical treatments, also known as spot-on products, are squeezed out of a tube and applied to the pet's neck or back. One advantage of these products is that they generally contain insect growth regulators (IGRs), which prevent eggs from hatching and larvae from maturing into adult fleas. This means that a single application can completely eliminate fleas for up to a month. However, these products have drawbacks as well. Although they're generally safe for pets if applied correctly, they can irritate the skin or eyes of humans; should you come in contact with the product, it must be rinsed off promptly. Once applied, the product may take several hours to dry. During this time, it may rinse off in water, and the residue may transfer to other pets, furniture or humans. Moreover, some pet owners find the smell or feel of the spot-on treatments unpleasant.
Other flea treatments come in tablet form. These pose no risk to humans, and they don't leave any messy residue. Oral flea treatments tend to kill adult fleas very quickly, but most of them don't contain an IGR to deal with the eggs and larvae. This means that pet owners must either combine the tablet with a second treatment that contains an IGR, such as a spot-on product, or keep repeating the dose until no new fleas are hatching. Another problem is getting a pet to take the pill. While some users say their pets will gobble them happily if they're tucked inside a treat, others -- especially cat owners -- find it very difficult to get them down their pets' throats. Also, some oral medications are available only with a prescription from a vet.
Finding the best flea treatment
Whether you opt for a spot-on or oral flea treatment, the two most important considerations are that it be safe for your pet -- and you -- and that it be effective. We also considered how easy or hard a flea treatment was to administer correctly. To find the best options, we looked at the guidance of vets and other experts, as well as reviews written by thousands of pet owners. The end result is our list of Best Reviewed flea treatments. We also name a few other flea control products are worth considering.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Flea Treatments: Spot-on flea-control treatments are applied to the skin. Reviews say they are the most effective way to rid your pets of their pests, and these are the top choices.
Best Flea Medications: Oral flea medications are safer and less traumatic to some pets, but not always as effective as spot-on flea treatments. These are the ones that experts and users say are best.
Buying Guide: Finding a flea treatment that keeps you and your pet safe, but kills fleas fast and effectively, can be a challenge. These is what you need to know to find the best choice.
Our Sources: Where can you find the best reviews of flea treatments? Our editors used these reviews and guidance from veterinarians, pet experts, scientists and everyday pet owners in compiling this report.