The thought of insects crawling on your skin and living off your blood probably, well, makes your skin crawl. Yet, too often as pet owners, we allow fleas and ticks to treat our pets like bed-and-breakfasts. And it is only after these pests make themselves at home that we might realize showing them the door can be difficult, expensive and painfully slow.
Fleas and ticks aren’t just irritating and distasteful; they can lead to medical problems. Flea allergies can cause severe itching and skin damage; fleas can also carry the causative agents of cat-scratch disease, while ticks carry the organisms that can lead to debilitating illnesses like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. So it’s crucial to continuously and effectively prevent infestations of these parasites for the health and safety of our pets, our families and ourselves.
Fleas: The Prolific, Perplexing Parasite
Consider the life cycle of the common flea: The average female can lay 40 to 50 eggs daily. The eggs develop into maggot-like larvae and progress to a cocoon stage called pupae. These pupae wait several weeks to months for the ideal temperature and humidity to mature into adult fleas. That single adult flea you find on your pet represents about 5 percent of the total flea problem in your home; eggs, larvae, and pupae comprise the rest. Your pet — and your home — can be infested before a single flea is found. And finding them can be tough, especially on cats, because of their constant grooming. That’s why a one-time treatment for fleas isn’t usually enough.
Pet owners often discover a flea problem because of a pet’s severe itching, which sometimes is due to flea allergy dermatitis — a sensitization to the flea’s saliva when it draws a blood meal. No pet is safe from fleas and their bites, but not all pets are hypersensitive to them. This means severe infestations can occur without your dog or cat showing any obvious discomfort. Therefore, it’s best to use preventive tactics to help keep fleas from infesting your pet and home in the first place.
To do this, speak with your veterinarian about safe flea-control products that you can administer to your pet year-round. Some products are administered once a month, but other products provide longer-lasting protection. Ask your vet about the best choice for your pets. Consistent use of safe prevention products is the primary method of managing fleas. Newly hatched young adult fleas usually feed right away. If your pet has been treated with an appropriate flea product when these adult fleas emerge, you can help break the cycle of infestation. (Remember to treat all of the pets in the house, regardless of whether or not they’re itching.)
Treating your pet’s environment is also an important part of controlling and preventing flea infestations. Fleas lay their eggs on your pet, but the eggs usually fall off. Once in the environment, they molt into larvae and develop into the pupae stage. Larvae don’t survive well in sunlight, preferring instead to hide in dark, protected areas like deep carpet or pet bedding. Therefore, focus on treating the places your pet likes to rest, especially those that are out of sunlight, like a resting place in the shady area of the yard, your pet’s blanket or pillow — or even your bed (ick). Frequent cleaning or vacuuming can help reduce the pupal and larval stages of fleas in the carpet, and many flea control products used on pets also kill eggs and larvae.
But don’t forget that fleas can gain access to your house or yard in many ways, including wildlife, neighborhood cats and you, just to name a few. Also remember that if your dogs or cats are allowed access to other areas — such as parks, nature areas, crawl spaces or even the neighbor’s yard — they’ll have ample opportunity to encounter fleas. Therefore, even if you’re treating your pet, areas of your home and yard may also need regular attention.
Ticks: Expanding Their Disease-Carrying Reach
Like fleas, ticks can now be found throughout most of the country. Though the severity of tick infestations varies by region, ticks are now spreading into areas that previously had very limited tick problems.
Unlike fleas, ticks may not cause dramatic irritation when they attach to your pet’s skin. This lets the tick slowly fill with blood without interference. Before feeding, ticks are often small and easily overlooked; once a tick has eaten and is engorged with blood, it grows in size and often looks bloated. These bloated ticks are usually easier to spot (depending on species — some of them can still be very small), but can be difficult to remove — especially if you aren’t used to doing it. If you see a bloated tick, your best bet is to visit your veterinarian so she can remove it and check for any additional ticks.
There are several species of ticks that pose a risk to pets and people. Ticks can be hosts to several types of disease-producing organisms that can be transmitted to pets or people while the tick is feeding. These organisms can cause illnesses like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Again, the lesson here is that it’s best to protect your pets — and yourself — from ticks rather than react to them after the fact.
Most ticks lurk in tall grass or low-hanging bushes and crawl onto pets or people as they walk by. The tick can then travel on the host — that’s you or your pet — to find a suitable place to attach and feed. Considering how stealthy these travelers are, the most reliable plan is to keep your pet on an effective tick preventive all year. Conveniently, many products combine protection from ticks with flea protection. Your veterinarian can recommend a product that is safe and appropriate for your pet.
You can also help prevent ticks by keeping the grass and bushes in your pet’s outdoor area mowed and trimmed. If you’re hiking, camping or playing in untended and possibly tick-infested outdoor areas, wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts and headgear to help prevent tick exposure. Afterward, be sure to check both your pets and your family for ticks.
The Risk-Free Myth
Some circumstances may seem like they’d be guaranteed flea and tick free, but this is not so. There is no such thing as a completely risk-free situation. Pets need prevention in every situation.
Think your indoor pet is safe? Think again. You’ve seen bugs inside your house — fleas and ticks can sneak indoors, too. Even pets who don’t venture outside — such as an indoor cat or a dog who only goes in the yard for potty breaks — are at risk of flea and tick infestation. Granted, their infestation chances are lower than those of outdoor pets, but you can help protect them by using safe and effective flea and tick control products year-round.
And don’t assume that there’s a flea- and tick-free season. Fall and winter may seem like distant memories at this time of year, but they’re not to be forgotten when it comes to parasite prevention. Fleas and ticks have a way of popping up in the colder months. In fact, flea numbers can surge in the fall in temperate climates.
What’s more, fleas enjoy a wonderful, climate-controlled environment inside your house year-round. They can gain inside access by hitching a ride on outside sources, such as you and your pets, or adult fleas can develop from eggs or larvae that were already hiding in your house. Don’t forget that ticks are extremely tough, too, and can often survive outside even during the winter months. The only way to ensure your dog or cat is safe from fleas and ticks is to keep him on a parasite preventive all year.
Keeping Fleas off Pets: Your Options for Preventives
Today’s highly effective parasite preventives each work a little differently to keep fleas off your pets; your veterinarian can recommend a product that best suits your pet’s health needs and your lifestyle. Here’s a look at the differences between oral products (which your pet eats) and topical products (which you apply to your pet’s skin). There are also some effective collars that you may want to ask your vet about.
Oral Flea Control
- Available as palatable, flavored tablets, therefore, generally easy to administer to most dogs.
- No mess.
- No worry about accidental contact with skin (children’s or other pets’) or potential discoloration of household surfaces (furniture or flooring) from topicals immediately after application.
- No need to worry about swimming or bathing. (Frequent swimming or bathing may reduce the effectiveness of some topicals.)
Topical Flea Control
- No risk of your pet vomiting up the medication.
- No worries about whether your pet ate the whole tablet.
- An alternative for pets who won’t take oral products or are difficult to medicate.
Stop Fleas and Ticks Before They Start
Remember this mantra: When it comes to fleas and ticks, it’s best — and safest — to prevent an infestation than it is to deal with the consequences. Your veterinarian, as an expert in parasite control and prevention, can recommend the best products to help prevent infestation. (Keep in mind that not all insecticides are safe for both cats and dogs of all sizes, so carefully follow your veterinarian’s recommendations.)
With a little effort and a year-round prevention plan, you can keep your pets virtually parasite free — and help ensure that your home sports a “no vacancy” sign when it comes to fleas and ticks.