Although fleas live here year-round, May is the beginning of high hatch season for the tiny biting insects.
“The lack of a cold winter and no real frost increases our flea population,” said veterinarian Lea Fistein, owner of The Animal Clinic on Broadway in Galveston.
Fistein said Galveston has optimal conditions in temperature and humidity for fleas, which is exacerbated by abundant wild life and feral animals that serve as unwitting hosts.
It’s practically paradise for the average female flea, which can lay as many as 50 eggs a day.
To opt out of the spring flea-for-all, the veterinarian recommends a religious, routine flea prevention offensive, whether your pets go outside or not.
“Preventing fleas requires time and attention, but it is much easier than treating a flea infestation,” she said.
If you already have a flea infestation, you will continue to see fleas for some time, even after applying any product to your pet. This doesn’t mean the product isn’t working; it means the fleas are dying.
By protecting your pet, you are also protecting yourself, said Lucas Blanton, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
Murine typhus, a bacterial disease with flu-like symptoms, is transmitted by flea bites. He has been following cases of typhus since 2012, when he happened to diagnose a patient with a disease that many thought had been eradicated.
“It hadn’t been seen on the island in decades, probably because of the widespread use of DDT in the 1940s and 50s,” he said. “Now we’ve started to see a re-emergence.”
Blanton worked with Galveston Animal Control to capture and test opossums, a reluctant host to the fleas, and found that the majority had antibodies to Rickettsia typhi, the bacterium that causes murine typhus. That means they had been exposed to it.
Only about half of the people who have murine typhus develop the telltale rash. And, even though it is rarely life threatening, it can make you really sick.
“One young person told me he was the sickest he had ever felt,” he said.
The disease is easily treated by doxycycline, but first it has to be recognized, and because it wasn’t seen for so many years, not many primary care physicians are familiar with it. Blanton is trying to change that through publications and additional education.
From a personal point-of-view, knowing the disease is present is another reason for taking fleas seriously, he said.
“It’s important to use commercial flea products,” Blanton said.
“You’re protecting your pet, but you’re also protecting yourself and your family.”