When most people think of June, July and August, they think of green lawns and turquoise swimming pools, tennis whites and creamy Panamas, pastel weddings and lemon daylilies. I think of little brown fleas.
There is no picturesque way to talk about them. My computer’s dictionary defines fleas as “Any of various small, wingless, bloodsucking insects of the order Siphonaptera that have legs adapted for jumping and are parasites on warm-blooded animals.” When it comes to fleas, that’s the politest thing anybody can say.
It’s only natural that I should have a preoccupation with this minuscule life form. I have pets, lots of them. All year long my house looks like a George Booth cartoon. Booth’s New Yorker drawings feature eccentric couples living in stark apartmentsthe kinds of places where bare light bulbs hang from cords. And there is always a horde of scrawny felines and Churchillian canines. The only difference between Boothville and Casa Kreyling is that I have shades on my light bulbs, and every one of my three dogs and three cats is fully fleshed. Each also has a lot of fur, and that’s where the fleas come in.
At my house, the telltale sign of summer is an animal sitting on its haunches, rear leg extended at a humanly impossible angle, scratching behind its ear with short, vigorous strokes. The sight of my pets thus engaged sends sympathetic itches needling to my nerve endings. I scurry to the laundry room.
The laundry room is my arsenal of weapons for the war on fleas. The ritual for flea controlnote I do not say eradicationis complex, expensive and time-consuming. Over the years I have purchased flea sprays, flea shampoos, flea powders, flea dips, flea foams, even flea combs. I am a ’60s peacenik who believes in the banning of chemical warfare, but, when it comes to fleas, I am as ruthless as Gen. Curtis LeMay. His rabid strategy for the Viet Cong“Bomb ’em back to the Stone Age”reflects my flea-related sentiments exactly.
Bombing is actually the first line of attack. Each May and October, I carefully set out 12 bug bombs, one in each room of my house and in the basement. I determinedly purchase the cans guaranteeing to annihilate bloodsucking “adult fleas” and their larvae as well. The May bombing leaves me with a clean, flea-less slate, while the October one destroys the wily specimens that have survived the first frost. During the intervening months, I shampoo and dip, powder and foam, spray and comb.
Because my animals come in two species, I’ve had to come up with two separate de-fleaing methods. Either method demands the canniness worthy of a guerrilla insurgent.
A key axiom of canine behavior is “when wet, one shakes.” That’s why dogs are best soaked down outdoors. The procedure for shampooing a dog in the backyard is pretty straightforward. First you tie the dog to some sturdy, immovable object. This tactic is necessary if you expect to see Fido again before sunset. After one or two washings, any dog’s reputation for gregariousness can retreat into the basement at the sight of a bucket or a whiff of suds. Sophie, the most cautious of my canines, has been known to disappear for hours, when all I really meant to do was mop the floor.
Once the animal is secured, shampooing is as simple as lathering up and hosing off. Dipping, however, is more awkward. Flea dip must be mixed with water before it’s applied, and then the dog’s coat must be soaked with the stuff. Most canines, unfortunately, do not come in sizes that fit easily into a bucket.
If the animal cannot be immersed, the flea dip must be sponged into his coat. This sponging wastes a lot of liquid. By the time the fleas on Dog Number One are in their death throes, the whole terrace is awash, the bucket is almost empty, and Dogs Numbers Two and Three are still waiting at the stake. At $12.79 for four ounces, the multi-pet household cannot afford to be cavalier with the precious flea-killing elixir. My economical solution is to place each end of the dog, in turn, into the bucket while sponging. That way, I catch the run-off.
Be warned that dogs do not like to stand in a bucket. Their legs assume rigor mortis at the thought. It is this stage of the battle that separates the generals from the infantry. I remind myself that dogs are pack animals, and that I am the larger and slightly stronger leader of their pack. I overpower and subdue them. They are dipped. They shake. We are all wet together.
Cats are another matter entirely. They are not pack animals but loners. I coyly suggest that they would be more comfortable if they were not constantly scratching. They merely want to be left alone.
Shampooing and dipping are not recommended methods of feline flea treatment because cats do not like water. They do not even drink the stuff without an air of suspicion. The dearly departed Livia once fell into my garden pool when trying to catch a goldfish. She stalked off angrily into the bushes, shaking each leg like a bell ringer, and was not seen for days.
Because of feline aquaphobia, cats are best treated for fleas by using powders or foams. Spraying is a seldom-used option at our house, since my cats tend to shoot off like rockets at the mere sound of an aerosol hiss. Whatever method you choose, I strongly suggest two handlers for the operation. Single cat handlers must be gifted with nerves of steel and an acrobatic skill.
Handler One dons heavy garden gloves and an outfit with long sleeves sewn from a sturdy fabric. Suitably armored, Handler One grasps the front legs in her left hand, grabs the rear legs in her right hand, and stretches the cat horizontally. When stretched out, rotisserie-style, the animal’s strength is reduced to that of a professional wrestler. Handler Two plays the relatively cushy part of powderer or foamer, which is why you may want to delegate this role to a less than gung-ho participant. As the chemical is applied, your feline may make sounds that eerily resemble an infant’s wail, or she may growl with a threatening deep-throat tone that you’d swear was taped for Linda Blair in The Exorcist. You must steel yourself. Even a slight gesture of sympathy may cause you to lose your grip; I have the scars to prove it.
Perhaps you are wondering why I don’t run a classified ad offering Charming Pets Free to Good Homes. I’ve often considered that possibility myself. Still, I approach each summer’s engagement with the minuscule enemy, shorn of illusions. I have no expectation of winning. The best I hope for is a neutral stalemate, sort of like Korea.
Unfortunately, there is no flea-less demilitarized zone in a Nashville summer. As I sit on the sofa of a summer evening, watching fleas jump and pets scratch, I often feel a sense of weariness and futility. I realize that I am fighting solo against whole populations, not against individuals.
In such a state of despondency, I escape total despair by recalling the cheerful banner proclaiming “Free Dog Dip on Saturday mornings” at Acme Farm Supply. It is to Acme that I fly for comfort and camaraderie when I can no longer bear to dip alone. I stand first with Sophie and Rhonda in the small-dogs-for-the-small-vat line; then I queue up with Raymond for the jumbo-sized dip tank.
While standing and waiting, I meet people and dogs from all over Davidson County. The owners talk pet talk. We explain where each furry friend came from and what his/her character is like. We discuss breeds and temperaments. We ponder the particular mixture of the clearly less-than-purebred. That speculation alone can really while away the minutes.
The one thing we do not talk about is fleas. We avoid the topic, in part, because of simple obviousness: We wouldn’t be waiting if our dogs weren’t scratching. The other reason for our collective reticence is a fatalism best left unremarked. We cannot bear to be reminded that the dip will wear off, the fleas will come back, and we’ll all be standing in line till doomsdaywhen, we know, out of the smoldering heap of human civilization, shall jump a flea.
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