Fleas and Ticks
From the AVMA brochure, revised December 2009
At some point in their lives, many pets experience discomfort caused by external parasites such as fleas, or ticks. These parasites can be extremely irritating to pets and can cause serious skin problems or even carry disease. Modern medicines make treatment, control, and prevention of many external parasites much easier than in the past.
- Look for fleas, ticks, and coat abnormalities any time you groom your dog or cat or when you return home from areas that are likely to have higher numbers of these parasites.
- Consult your veterinarian if your pet excessively scratches, chews, or licks its coat, or persistently shakes its head or scratches its ears. These clinical signs may indicate the presence of external parasites or other conditions requiring medical care.
- Prompt treatment of parasites lessens your pet's discomfort, decreases the chances of disease transmission, and may reduce the degree of home infestation.
- Discuss the health of all family pets with your veterinarian when one pet becomes infested. Some parasites cycle among pets, making control of infestations difficult unless other pets are considered. Consult your veterinarian before beginning treatment.
- Tell your veterinarian if you have attempted any parasite remedies, as this may impact your veterinarian's recommendation.
- Be especially careful when applying insecticides to cats, as cats are particularly sensitive to these products. Never use a product that is not approved for cats because the results could be lethal.
- Follow label directions carefully.
- Leave treatment to the experts. Your veterinarian offers technical expertise and can assist you in identifying products that are most likely to effectively and safely control your pet's parasite problem.
Fleas thrive when the weather is warm and humid. Depending on your climate, fleas may be a seasonal or year round problem. Your pet can pick up fleas wherever an infestation exists, often in areas frequented by other cats and dogs. Once the flea becomes an adult, it spends virtually all of its time on your pet. Female fleas begin laying eggs within 24 hours of selecting your pet as a host, producing up to 50 eggs each day. These eggs fall from your pet onto the floor or furniture, including your pet's bed, or onto any other indoor or outdoor area where your pet happens to go. Tiny larvae hatch from the eggs and burrow into carpets, under furniture, or into soil before spinning a cocoon. The cocooned flea lies dormant (inactive) for weeks before emerging as adults that are ready to infest your pet. The result is a flea life cycle of anywhere from 12 days to 6 months.
Diagnosis, Risks and Consequences
You may not know that your pet has fleas until their number increases to the point that your pet is obviously uncomfortable. Signs of flea problems range from mild redness to severe scratching. One of the first things you may notice on a pet with fleas is "flea dirt" the black flea droppings left on your pet's coat. You may not actually see the fleas themselves, but they can still be on your pet and in the environment. Fleas bite animals and suck their blood; young or small pets with heavy flea infestations may become anemic. Some pets can develop an allergy to flea saliva that may result in more severe irritation and scratching; these pets can become severely itchy from just one or two flea bites. Also, pets can become infected with certain types of tapeworms if they ingest fleas. In areas with moderate to severe flea infestations, people may also be bitten by fleas. While fleas are capable of transmitting several infectious diseases to pets and people, this is rare.
Treatment and Control
Pets at risk for fleas should be treated during the flea season with an appropriate preventive. Because much of the flea's life cycle is spent off of your pet, treating only your pet will not eliminate the problem. If you kill the adult fleas and do not kill the eggs, larvae and pupae, your pet will become re-infested when these fleas become adults and the cycle will start all over again. Therefore, in addition to treating your pet, reduce the flea population in your house by thoroughly cleaning your pet's sleeping quarters and vacuuming floors and furniture that your pet comes in contact with frequently. You may be advised to treat your house with insecticides to kill the fleas. Flea larvae are more resistant than adult fleas to insecticides. With moderate and severe flea infestations, you may also be advised to treat your yard.
Ticks are commonly found in wooded areas, brush, shrubs and wild undergrowth, and any animal that enters these environments is at risk of becoming a tick's host. Tick exposure may be seasonal, depending on geographic location. There are many different species of ticks that can affect dogs and cats.
Diagnosis, Risks and Consequences
Ticks are most often found around your pet's neck, in the ears, in the folds between the legs and the body, and between the toes. Tick bites can cause skin irritation and heavy infestations can cause anemia in pets. Ticks are also capable of spreading serious infectious diseases (such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and others) to the pets and the people on which they feed. Disease risk varies by geographic area and tick species.
Treatment and Control
Pets at risk for ticks should be treated during the tick season with an appropriate preventive. In the case where a tick has bitten your pet, prompt removal of ticks is very important because it lessens the chance of disease transmission from the tick to your pet. Remove ticks by carefully using tweezers to firmly grip the tick as close to the pet's skin as possible and gently and steadily pulling the tick free without twisting it or crushing the tick during removal. After removing the tick, crush it while avoiding contact with tick fluids that can carry disease. Owners who take their pets to tick prone areas during camping, sporting, or hiking trips should examine their pets for ticks immediately upon returning home and remove them from their pets. If your pet picks up ticks in your backyard, trimming bushes and removing brush may reduce your pet's exposure and risk of infestation.