PORTLAND, Maine — Cases of flea infestations in Maine have seen a dramatic uptick this year, according to those who field reports of the pet-pestering vermin.

“It’s been a really, really bad year,” said veterinarian Bennett Wilson of Portland‘s Forest Avenue Veterinary Hospital.

Fellow veterinarian Mark Hanks from the Kindred Spirits Veterinary Clinic in Orrington agreed, saying one out of every three pet patients he sees is seeking flea relief.

“Most summers I see two or three cases of fleas a day,” Hanks told the Bangor Daily News. “Now I’m seeing eight or 10 cases a day. Fleas are optimally reproductive when it’s hot and humid, and we had a particularly hot and humid summer.”

There’s almost no good news when it comes to the topic of fleas, Hanks said. Typically, 3,000 to 5,000 fleas must already be in the area before people in the house realize the tiny blood-sucking insects are present, and for every one flea picked off a pet there are about 300 others nearby in some stage of life or another.

A female flea lays 36 eggs a day, Hanks said.

“It may take you two or three weeks to realize you’ve got fleas, and in that time the fleas have laid thousands and thousands of eggs,” he said.

Wilson said that killing the eggs is more important than killing the fleas themselves, which have life cycles of about 21 days.

“Because of the life cycle, you can’t just kill the fleas and expect it to be done,” he said. “There are just millions and millions of eggs waiting to be hatched.”

Mike Peaslee, technical manager for the Brunswick-based Modern Pest Services — which has branch offices throughout Maine and New England — said in order for his organization to fully eradicate a home of the fleas it takes a number of treatments over time. The first wave of pesticides kills the current adult fleas, while future applications are necessary to kill the fleas that subsequently hatch and fill the void.

After the exterminators treat a home, Peaslee said, the residence must be vacant for four hours afterward.

There are steps pet owners can take to reduce their risk of a flea explosion, he said.

“If you have pets, be proactive about treating the pets to help reduce the odds of having the infestation to begin with,” Peaslee said. “One other thing that will help minimize the infestation, and something we recommend to people when we do a consultation, is to vacuum every single day.”

The vets agreed that regularly sucking up the fleas, their eggs and the larvae, which become embedded in rugs and upholstered furniture, is crucial.

But Hanks added that pet owners also need to be vigilant about tying the vacuum bag up in a larger plastic bag and throwing it out away from the living space, or, in the case of vacuums with no bags, washing the device’s collection container out with hot water and detergent.

As for treating the pets themselves? That can be tricky, too.

“There are a number of products that are effective and safe, and there are a number of products that are not effective and not safe,” Wilson said.

Wilson said pet owners should contact their local veterinarians to see which products the doctors use and noted that his office treats with FrontLine, Comfortis and Assurity, among others. Hanks added Advantix, Revolution and Vectra 3D to that list of flea treatments, but noted that some animals have adverse or allergic reactions to one brand or another, so a pet owner should keep a close watch to make sure the pet is reacting well to the medicine.

For dogs, the treatment can be topical — through a liquid applied to the animal’s hair or skin — or administered through a pill. Cats are tougher customers, but Wilson said the latest in topical medications are effective enough to make dreaded flea baths obsolete.

A flea bath is “dangerous and it’s stressful, but the great thing is, it’s not really necessary any more,” Wilson said. “You’ll see fleas falling off and dying within 30 minutes of medication if you’re using the right stuff.”

Hanks said he’s recently heard of other home remedies for fleas as well, including spreading Borax and salt over carpets and furniture, or sprinkling garlic powder on the animals’ food to make their skin less appetizing to the bugs. He said he can’t medically vouch for those remedies but can understand the scientific theory behind some of them.

“I don’t know what to say about them,” Hanks said. “I’d never heard of the salt one before, but in the last few days I’ve heard about it four times.”

Corie Washow, co-owner of Shift Sustainable Home Goods in Brunswick, said her store sells two non-chemical flea remedies. One is a flea trap that concentrates a light on a sticky pad, to which fleas are attracted and then become stuck. The other is diatomaceous earth, a product that has varied uses and can be put into play fighting fleas in a similar way to salt.

“It’s a powder that’s mined from the earth,” Washow said. The granules “have jagged edges, so when fleas walk on it or ingest it, it cuts their bodies and they die.”

Hanks added that relief may be on the way just because of the upcoming arrival of winter, but said it’s a risk to wait for colder, drier conditions to kill off the fleas.

“If you never treated a flea, most of the population will die off in the winter without a treatment,” he said. “But your animals will be miserable in the meantime, and you may pay for it in the future.”

In addition to forcing the animals to endure the itchy insects until the weather freezes the bugs, Hanks said, fleas in their pupal stage of life can sit dormant for as long as two years waiting for the heat and humidity to return.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.