As a young, perhaps slightly naïve graduate student, Michael Dryden, DVM, MS, PhD, began his work in parasitology at Purdue University in 1986 expecting that he would immediately be plugged into an existing structure of sophisticated research.
Instead, his professor, S. Gaafar, DVM, PhD, gave him a simple assignment: Go into the library and absorb all the existing literature on fleas. At the end of three months, they would talk.
“Within three days, I knew we were in trouble,” says Dryden, now 51. “I realized we knew nothing. We just knew nothing about the biology of fleas in dogs and cats.”
But what he did next would change all that. Dryden designed what he calls a very simple master’s program focused on fleas. He decided he had to start by understanding the basics—where they mated, where they laid eggs, how many eggs they laid at a time, and how much time they spent on host animals.
That research, and the years of study that followed, have earned him a catchy nickname—Dr. Flea—and a string of honors, including being named by Ceva Animal Health this past February as the 2010 Veterinarian of the Year.
But it has also provided the very foundation of the modern flea-control treatments that have revolutionized the way veterinarians and pet owners manage fleas.
“Mike Dryden is the one who changed our paradigms about fleas in the ’80s,” says his longtime friend and colleague, Doug Carithers, DVM, director of applied research and publications for Merial Limited of Duluth, Ga.
“His continuing research, his data about fleas and flea reproductive patterns, is what paved the way for the [modern] flea control products that have been so effective.”
Evolution of a Vet
Now a professor of veterinary parasitology at Kansas State University, Dryden has consulted on every major veterinarian-prescribed flea-control product on the market.
Working with a lab team of researchers and support staff, some of whom have been with him for many years, he continues to evaluate the efficacy of current products and search for better ways to control fleas and, especially in recent years, ticks. (Some of his younger students, in fact, have taken to calling him Tick Daddy, Dryden reports with a laugh.)
Like so many veterinarians, Dryden was drawn to the profession early on because animals fascinated him. He decided in the fifth grade that he’d be a veterinarian one day. After graduating from veterinary school at Kansas State in 1984, he went to work in a rural Kansas practice catering to cattle for a year, then moved to Wichita to work in a small-animal practice.
It was there that his life, and career, changed course.
The summer of 1986 was a bad one for fleas. Dryden remembers that during that hot, rainy summer, he couldn’t escape dealing with flea fallout.
“No matter what we did, it didn’t seem to make a difference,” he recalls. “People were begging us to put their pets down because they were suffering so much. Animals were being dipped and sprayed so often they were getting sick or even dying.”
Sadly, Dryden says, that wasn’t all that uncommon back then. “Fleas often resisted everything we threw at them because we didn’t know what we were doing,” he says.
Dryden became obsessed with figuring out an answer. He’d always had an interest in parasitology; he’d done his senior thesis on heartworms. And he was finding the reality of day-to-day practice not quite as engaging as he’d expected. Within months, he decided to head to Purdue to pursue flea research.
For the next three and a half years, he lived, worked and dreamed fleas, completing his master’s program on flea biology in 18 months, his doctorate in veterinary parasitology in two years.
“I didn’t sleep very much,” he says. “I was excited and driven, and I came out of [Purdue] as the world’s foremost veterinary expert on fleas in cats and dogs.” He pauses for the punchline. “Of course, I was also the only expert.”
But that early research proved critical. Early on, Dryden and his research team determined that fleas mated, laid eggs and basically lived their entire lives on their hosts. Previously, the prevailing thought was that fleas laid eggs in cracks and crevices, and many anti-flea products treated the environment.
“We realized we could effectively control fleas by controlling reproduction,” Dryden says. “That was the light-bulb moment.”
That discovery cannot be overstated. In 1994, before the introduction of the first of the new-generation flea treatments, owners purchased $125 million worth of flea control products from veterinarians, Dryden says. Today, flea control is a $1 billion-plus industry, with the majority of spending occurring on veterinarian-prescribed products, he says.
But that doesn’t mean that there still isn’t plenty of work to be done. Dryden and his team continue to research voraciously, especially in the areas of flea and tick biology. For instance, Dryden has led a team doing home studies in Tampa, Fla.—a hotbed for flea activity—to evaluate the efficacy of flea products in real-world settings.
“The possibility of resistance is always hanging over our head,” he says.
Over the past five or six years, he says, there has been an increase in the number of veterinarians and pet owners who believe the major flea products do not work in their locales, he says. Dryden’s own research has shown no such resistance—flea infestations, he says, are typically due to the presence of untreated animals, or the misuse or inconsistent use of product.
Fifteen years ago, when new-generation flea products were new, most veterinarians gave pet owners a handout explaining flea biology, helping them understand the importance of precisely following treatment protocol, he says. At a recent professional conference he addressed, he found only a handful of veterinarians who still give out such information.
“We used to spend time educating clients because we had to,” he says. “Once we saw how well these new products worked, we got complacent. So, some of the problems we face today have come about at least in part because we are not providing as much information as we need to.”
In his lectures today, Dryden emphasizes education, so that veterinarians and their staffs can better help clients use products safely and properly.
After all, Dr. Flea hasn’t devoted a career to eradicating fleas to see them make a comeback.