Gretta MacIntyre, founder of Sleep Tight, and Jack, a 2-year-old Jack Russell-rat terrier mix, who is trained to sniff out bedbugs. She uses a vial of bedbugs that she will hide, and Jack will find them.
Gretta MacIntyre trains Jack to sniff out bedbugs at Billy Young's house in Hickory.
By David Templeton Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
While doing an investigation, Jumpin' Jack Flash and his skilled nose are all business.
Jack sniff-sniffs-sniffs the floor and couch cushions, especially focusing on seams and creases where those dastardly perpetrators tend to hide. With all that sniffing, it's a wonder he doesn't hyperventilate. But when he does find what he's seeking, he scratches with terrier intensity.
The Jack Russell-rat terrier mix hunts for, and is good at finding, bedbugs -- those pesky insects that suck up human blood like miniature vampires and are staging a dramatic comeback throughout the nation and southwestern Pennsylvania.
The appleseed-sized insect swells eight times its original size once engorged with human blood that transforms the almond-shaped insect into a tiny reddish-brown balloon. And while bedbugs are not known to spread disease, their bite leaves a raised red bump similar to a mosquito's. Scratching the bite can lead to an infected welt.
Bedbugs migrate to wherever humans are, which makes hotels, motels, dormitories, public housing, apartment buildings and group homes prime targets for infestations.
With the return of bedbugs, Jack has job security for him and his owner/handler Gretta MacIntyre, who operates Sleep Tight LLC from her home in Cross Creek, Washington County. She also has an associate in Cincinnati.
She acquired Jack in February through J&K Canine in High Springs, Fla., which trains rescued dogs in bedbug scent detection. She spent two weeks training with Jack to earn a team certification.
The terrier, she said, can inspect a room in two minutes and an entire house in 20 to find hidden bugs. If he finds them, Ms. MacIntyre recommends that the person hire a professional exterminator. She and Jack often are called back to reinspect a site to ensure the extermination was successful.
Jack demonstrated his skills Wednesday in a Victorian house in Hickory, Washington County, which wasn't infested with bedbugs. Ms. MacIntyre hid three vials of bedbugs throughout the first floor. Each vial has a screen over the opening.
"Find the B's," she said repeatedly.
On a leash, Jack went through the house to demonstrate amazing olfactory skill. And when he finds some "B's", he scratches, then earns praise and a treat. Research has shown, Ms. MacIntyre said, that bedbug scent-detecting dogs are 98 percent accurate, compared with 30- to 35-percent accuracy for human bedbug inspectors.
Jack faces plenty of opportunity to ply his trade.
Thomas Scott, Orkin Pest Control operations manager for Western Pennsylvania, said his company has done bedbug treatments in 48 states, with an 800 percent increase in the past two years in the Pittsburgh area.
Hotels and motels, he said, have had a 38 percent increase in bedbug infestations, with a 20 percent increase in apartment and condominium complexes, and a 10 percent increase in group facilities, including dormitories, nursing and group homes and correctional institutions.
"They are the size of a pinhead," Mr. Scott said, describing the insect before full maturity. "You can't imagine how many cracks and crevices they are in in any structure. In hotels, motels or apartment buildings they are inside electrical plugs, waterlines and popcorn ceilings."
Don't think that bedbugs target dirty households. Mr. Scott said the bug's only interest is to cohabitate with its food source -- people. But the embarrassment of having bedbugs makes some people hesitant to seek outside help.
When traveling, he said, never place a suitcase on the hotel floor or bed. Upon arriving home, shake out your clothes in the garage or outside and closely inspect the suitcase, clothing and shoes.
"Everybody is concerned and panicked right now because they associate it with a sanitation issue," Mr. Scott said. "But bedbugs affect one-star hotels as much as five-star hotels. People are afraid to report it because people will think they are dirty and not keeping their property clean. It's just wrong. It allows bedbugs to spread."
Orkin heats rooms up to 140 degrees to kill bedbugs, which can be resistant to pesticides, Mr. Scott said.
Bill Todaro, an Allegheny County Health Department entomologist, said he received two bedbug calls before noon that day and four the previous workday. One came from a school nurse dealing with a student having problems at school due to bedbug bites.
"The kids came to school smelling like mothballs because their mother crushed up some naphthalene to try to get rid of the bedbugs," he said. "There are four children in the house, and bedbugs were dropping from the ceiling, the problem was so bad."
Mr. Todaro said people should report problems to their landlord. The health department can provide literature on handling the problem, but if no action is taken, it can send a notice of inspection then hire a commercial pest control company to eradicate the bugs, at the owner's expense.
"It's worse than last year," he said. "We've had a bedbugs problem building for the last five to six years in Allegheny County."
The problem wasn't onerous for the health department, he said, until bedbugs began showing up in apartment buildings, where they spread throughout the building, then begin spreading "building to building."
John Joyce, general counsel and deputy executive director of the Allegheny County Housing Authority, said its 3,300 housing units have yet to report problems. Should it occur, the authority will call Terminix Pest Control, which is under contract to take action. "We are aware of a resurgence of the problem," Mr. Joyce said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held a "Bedbug Summit" this month to focus on prevention, control and management of the insect. In 2002, it classified them as a public health pest.
States including New Jersey and New York have enacted laws that place the burden of bedbug eradication on landlords. If the problem remains unresolved, the landlord can face hefty fines. The state also can hire an exterminator and place a lien on the property to recover expenses, Mr. Todaro said.
For now, Ms. MacIntyre has a personal stake in her bedbug business -- some might think too personal. She has four vials of bedbugs to keep Jack's skills sharp.
But while her bedbugs do not need to eat often, they still need an occasional meal. This is where things get buggy. To feed her bedbugs, she places the screen end of one vial each week on her arm to let the little Draculas consume her blood. That itch for success is remedied with hydrocortisone cream. "As the saying goes, you should keep your friends close and your enemies even closer."