Fleas and ticks are two of the most frequent pet care concerns. While prevention is the best defense against these parasites, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of fleas and ticks so you can help your pets if necessary.
Fleas are the most common external parasite to plague companion animals. They are wingless insects that feed on blood, can jump up to two feet high and persistent in the environment.
Fleas can live for as few as 13 days or as long as 12 months—and during that time, can produce millions of offspring. Though there are many species of fleas, the one that most often affects both dogs and cats in North America is the cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis.
Symptoms of Fleas on Dogs
Fleas are most commonly noticed on a dog’s abdomen, the base of the tail and the head. Common symptoms of fleas on dogs include:
- Droppings or “flea dirt” in a dog’s coat (small dark “grains of sand”)
- Flea eggs (tiny, white grains)
- Allergic dermatitis
- Excessive scratching, licking or biting at skin
- Hair loss
- Scabs and hot spots
- Pale gums
Symptom of Fleas on Cats
If you see your cat scratching often and persistently, invest in a fine tooth comb and run it through her fur, paying special attention to the neck and the base of the tail. If you see small, fast-moving brown shapes about the size of a pinhead in her fur, your cat has fleas. Other symptoms:
- Droppings of “flea dirt” in a cat’s fur (small dark “grains of sand”)
- Flea eggs (tiny, white grains)
- Itchy, irritated skin
- Persistent scratching
- Chewing and licking
- Hair loss
- Pale lips and gums
Causes of Fleas
- Fleas are easily brought in from the outdoors.
- Fleas thrive in warm, humid climates at temperatures of 65 to 80 degrees.
- Adult fleas spend most of their lives on the animal, laying eggs in the fur.
- These eggs drop out onto rugs, upholstery, bedding and furniture; the new adult fleas will, in turn, find their living host (either human or animal).
- Fleas can consume 15 times their own body weight in blood, which can cause anemia or a significant amount of blood loss over time.
- This is especially problematic in young puppies or kittens, where an inadequate number of red blood cells can be life-threatening.
- Some pets have heightened sensitive to the saliva of fleas, which can cause an allergic reaction known as flea allergy dermatitis.
Consult your veterinarian if you suspect your pet has fleas. It is important that all of your pets are treated for fleas, including indoor and outdoor cats, and that the environment is treated as well. Once your veterinarian confirms the diagnosis, a treatment plan may include the following:
- Topical or oral treatment or the use of shampoos, sprays and powders on the pet.
- Thorough cleaning of your house, including rugs, bedding and upholstery. Severe cases may require using a spray or a fogger, which requires temporary evacuation of the home.
- It is very important not to use products on your cat that are intended for dogs.
- Lawn treatments may also be needed if your pet keeps getting re-infected every time it goes outside.
- Use a flea comb on your pet and wash his bedding once a week.
- Keep the outside of your house free of organic debris, such as rake clippings and leaves, and remember that fleas like to hide in dark, moist, shady areas.
- There are many preventative flea control products available, both as prescription and over-the-counter formulas.
Ticks are parasites that feed on the blood of unlucky host animals, such as cats and dogs. Like mites and spiders, ticks are arachnids. Although their presence may not even be noticed by the host, ticks can transmit many diseases through their bite.
Tick species and disease transmission tend to vary based on where you live, so check with your vet about what is common in your area.
- Most species of ticks require blood meals from a host to survive.
- Ticks bury their head into a host’s skin when they bite and then gorge themselves on blood.
- Ticks tend to be most active in late spring and summer and live in tall brush or grass, where they can attach to dogs and outdoor cats.
- Ticks can be transferred from pets coming into the household from outdoors.
- Ticks prefer to attach close to the head, neck, ears and feet, but can be found anywhere on your pet’s body.
- Ticks are particularly prominent in warm climates and certain wooded areas of the Northeast.
How Do I know if My Pet Has Ticks?
- Most ticks are visible to the naked eye. Ticks are often the size of a pinhead before they bite, and not noticed until they swell with blood.
- While these parasites rarely cause obvious discomfort, it is a good idea to check your pet regularly if you live in an area where ticks are prevalent, especially if he spends a lot of time outside.
- Run your hands carefully over your pet every time he comes inside, and especially check inside and around the ears, head and feet.
Complications Associated with Ticks
- Blood loss
- Tick paralysis
- Skin irritation or infection
- Lyme Disease
- Lyme disease is a bacterial infection than can affect humans, dogs, cats and other mammals.
- Its primary carrier is the deer tick, which can attach to a dog or human and transmit the bacteria that cause the disease.
- Clinical signs of Lyme disease include depression, swelling of the lymph nodes, loss of appetite, fever, swollen, painful joints and kidney failure.
- Lyme disease is most effectively treated with antibiotics.
- With prompt, proper treatment, your pet’s condition should start to improve within 48 hours.
- Cytauxzoonosis is a lethal infection caused by tick bites.
- This blood parasite is common in the South and is carried by bobcats.
- Ticks who feed on bobcats may transmit the infection to domestic cats, for whom the disease is fatal.
- Clinical signs of infection include: high fever, difficulty breathing, loss of appetite, jaundice, coma and death.
- The infection progresses rapidly—in a matter of weeks—and there is no known cure, though several studies have proved successful in managing certain strains of the disease.
Tick Treatment and Removal
If you do find a tick on your pet, it is important to take care when removing it. Any contact with the tick’s blood can potentially transmit infection to your pet or even to you. Prompt removal is necessary, but it is important to stay calm and not rush. Follow these step-by-step tick removal instructions:
Step 1: Prepare
- Put on latex or rubber gloves so you’ll never have direct contact with the tick or your pet’s bite area.
- Because throwing a tick in the trash or flushing it down the toilet will not kill it, you should prepare a screw-top jar containing rubbing alcohol to put a tick in after removal. This also allows you to hold it for veterinary testing.
- If possible, enlist a partner to help you distract and soothe your pet and hold her still during removal.
Step 2: Remove
- Using a pair of tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the animal’s skin as possible.
- Pull straight upwards with steady, even pressure and place the tick in your jar.
- Do not twist or jerk the tick. This may leave the mouth-parts embedded in your pet, or cause the tick to regurgitate infective fluids.
- Do not squeeze or crush the body of the tick, because its fluids may contain infective organisms.
Step 3: Disinfect and Monitor
- Disinfect the bite area and wash your hands with soap and water, even though you were wearing gloves.
- Sterilize your tweezers with alcohol or by carefully running them over a flame.
- Monitor the bite area over the next few weeks for any signs of localized infection, such as redness or inflammation.
- If infection occurs, please bring your pet—and your jarred tick—to your veterinarian for evaluation.
- Many of the same products on the market that treat fleas also kill ticks and prevent against future infestation. Speak to your vet about the best product for your pet.
- Ensure a tick-free lawn by mowing it regularly, removing tall weeds and making it inhospitable to rodents by keeping garbage covered and inaccessible.