Itching Through the Ages

The astonishing, bizarre, and sometimes dangerous flea and tick treatments of antiquity.

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.Fleas and ticks had a several-million-year head start when prehistoric canines and humans appeared on the evolutionary scene. Back then, we probably scratched, chewed and picked ourselves to distraction to dislodge these tenacious pests. Today, more than 2,500 different flea species have specialized their efforts for every warm-blooded land animal.

According to the Hutchinson’s Dog Encyclopedia (Walter Hutchinson, 1935), each flea species generally confines its attention to its particular host. However, dog fleas can be found on humans and vice versa. The dog flea (Ctenocephalides canis) and the human flea (Pulex irritans) are rare. Ninety-five percent of fleas on dogs are Ctenocephalides felis, the cat flea.

Nancy Hinkle, Ph.D., professor of entomology at the University of Georgia in Athens, wrote her doctoral dissertation on fleas, and has published 12 scientific articles and authored 10 book chapters on them. “This [cat] flea has a very wide host range,” Hinkle says. “It does well on all felids and canids. Once it finds a host, it never leaves, and females produce an egg every hour.”

That’s the good news. According to University of Florida veterinary entomology researcher Phillip E. Kaufman, Ph.D., “The cat flea really is only one flea to worry about, but ticks are diverse. In general, fleas are easier to control.”

Humans obviously had no idea what they were confronting when they began battling these pests in 2500 B.C. Pesticide concoctions appear in the earliest recorded history of China, Sumer and Egypt. Domestic dogs were kept as house pets by all these ancient cultures. This newly popular arrangement intensified problems, although it would be centuries before effective control measures emerged.

The Classics
The world’s first authoritative dog writer, the Roman historian Arrian (circa 86 to 160 A.D.), understood that external parasites were contagious. He attempted to curb them in his kennel with a bizarre dormitory arrangement of kennel boys sleeping next to each dog. However, fleas prefer dogs, so his plan didn’t work.

 

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