Creepy Crawlies

Fleas have a shady, dive-bar, back-alley, sneaking-the-Twinkie-out-of-the-freezer-at-midnight taboo about them.

Published: September 17, 2012

Ctenocephalides felis, the cat flea. Photo courtesy of Parasite and Diseases Image Library, Australia via CDC.

I’m working from home today, typing away as I perch on a yoga ball. Occasionally I grab a snack or switch yet another load of laundry from the washer to the dryer. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Normally, yes, the ability to work from home once in a while is one of the great perks of writing. Today, however, I feel as though I should be wearing one of those haz-mat suits from a sci-fi or horror movie and be wielding a flame-thrower. You see, I tucked a clue into the second sentence. There’s a reason behind the mountains of laundry and morass of stuffed animals queuing on my garage floor for their turn through the dryer.

We have lice.

Now, as a medical professional, I know that lice are transmitted from one human to another, and that elementary schools are basically giant cesspools of pestilence. However, this rational knowledge doesn’t prevent me from feeling as though our currently lousy state somehow reflects on my housekeeping, parenting, or membership in humanity.

Rational thinking has, however, so far stopped me from grabbing my husband’s clippers and razor and trying to bring back the Sinead O’Connor look. I do need to touch up my roots, but I’m pretty sure I won’t rock the bald pate nearly as well as my husband does.

Instead of mass buzz cuts, we’ve opted to go the chemical shampoo/comb/spray/high-temp-wash-dry-everything-in-sight route. This process of decontaminating both people and premises, combined with the icky shame feelings, got me thinking about a similar pet problem.


Like lice, fleas have a shady, dive-bar, back-alley, sneaking-the-Twinkie-out-of-the-freezer-at-midnight taboo about them. These things happen to other people. Mention the possibility of lice or fleas, and suddenly everyone becomes a 1930s elite Manhattan matriarch with marcelled waves, dragon-talon manicure, and an ivory cigarette holder – “Our sort of people don’t have these troubles, dahhhhling.”

Guess what!? You do.

If you are a human with hair on your head and go among other humans with hair on their heads, you can contract lice. (This is particularly true if you possess the larger ecto-parasites known as children.)

If you own a dog/cat/rabbit/wallaby and said dog/cat/rabbit/wallaby touches the ground outside, or touches another animal that has touched the ground outside, and then touches the floor/couch/bed/dog bed inside your house, your household can contract fleas.

As far as I know, flea-shame is not found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, yet it appears in veterinary exam rooms around the United States. Veterinarians are approached with flea-shame in roughly this manner.

Step 1: Client makes an appointment to have an itching dog/cat/wallaby examined.

Step 2 (optional): Client bathes said dog/cat/wallaby within an inch of drowning (or at least extreme prune-hood). Notes on Step 2: In the mind of the client, the purpose of Step 2 is to bring to the veterinarian an animal that smells pleasant and looks well-cared for. This is the pet-owning equivalent of dressing the toddler in her best outfit for church or to go to the pediatrician, even though she was running around naked less than an hour ago except for an inexplicable hat and her brother’s gym socks. In the veterinarian’s mind, the purpose of the bath was to eliminate all evidence that might actually provide some hope of a diagnosis.

Step 3: The veterinarian examines the dog/cat/wallaby. Note on Step 3: This step is facilitated by the omission of Step 2. P.S. No dog found in nature is ever that white; you aren’t fooling anyone.

Step 4: After taking a thorough history and completing a full physical examination, the veterinarian says, “I believe that your dog/cat/wallaby is itching because he is allergic to fleas.”

Step 5: The word “fleas” triggers an intense buzzing in the client’s ears, rendering him not only deaf for the rest of the appointment but retroactively deaf to the entire sentence containing the trigger word. Note on Step 5: This step is the inciting incident in the flea-shame-denial-recrimination cascade. At this point, a sort of panic-induced catatonia sets in, and the client is mentally transported to a magical island free of all insect life and replete with flowery cocktails delivered by Greco-Roman deities. Unfortunately, the dog/cat/wallaby remains shuffled within the mortal coil of a flea-infested reality.

Here’s the thing – there is a panoply of diagnoses about which a veterinarian might be wrong. However, flea sensitivity is not typically one of these conditions. For one thing, fleas often leave behind hints of their existence.

Hint #1: If that black piece of dirt is shiny and jumping, it isn’t dirt. Hint # 2: Those reddish black specks that come up with the flea comb may be called “flea dirt,” but they aren’t dirt either. They’re poop. And where there is poop, there is flea. Hint #3: Your pet’s butt is as bald as the shaven head referenced earlier. (There will be no butthead jokes; this is a classy forum.) Pets with flea allergies tend to lose hair and develop skin irritation in a classic pattern – the hairs along the top of the rump flee their follicles with flea-like alacrity.

Fleas on a pet don’t indicate bad ownership or bad housekeeping any more than lice on a child indicate bad parenting, a bad school, or bad housekeeping. Both situations indicate that the patient in question is a real, living creature who goes outside, has a working circulatory system, and is socialized. From a medical perspective, all of these things are considered positive.

Now, bad pet ownership or bad parenting would involve ignoring the creepy crawlies, ignoring the bought-and-paid-for advice of the medical practitioner, and allowing said creepy crawlies to go forth and be fruitful on pet, child, or in home.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Do the icky dance if you have to. Cry into your pillow. Pour a stiff drink. Eat an ocean of ice cream. Do whatever it takes to face the new reality. Then follow your veterinarian’s recommendations, treat your pet, treat your household, and then retreat to Happy Land.

I’ll see you there. I’ll be the one sipping a key lime margarita and dreaming of a parasite-free world.

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