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Pests That Feed on Your Pets
The soft, warm fur of dogs and cats provides the perfect environment for fleas and ticks. These insects feed on your pet's blood and can cause health problems ranging from allergic reactions to tapeworm infections to serious tick-borne illnesses. Both fleas and ticks are more common during the warmer months. But there are steps you can take to ward off these pests any time of year.
Flea Warning Signs: Dogs
- Flea droppings (dark specks) in the fur.
- Flea eggs (white specks) in the fur.
- Excessive licking or scratching.
- Scabs or hot spots on the skin.
Flea Warning Signs: Cats
The easiest way to find fleas on a cat is to check the belly. You may see the fleas themselves -- tiny dark spots that move -- or their droppings, which look like specks of dirt. Excessive scratching and hair loss are also signs that fleas may be feasting on your feline. Ctenocephalides felis is the most troublesome species in North America for both cats and dogs.
Fleas and Anemia
Because fleas can take in 15 times their own weight in blood, they can drain a significant amount from your pet. Dogs or cats that lose too much blood may develop anemia, a dangerous drop in the number of their red blood cells. Puppies and kittens are especially vulnerable. Signs of flea-induced anemia include pale gums and lack of energy.
Flea Allergy Dermatitis
Fleas are the most common cause of skin disease in dogs and cats. When a flea bites, it injects saliva into your pet's skin. This may trigger an allergic reaction called flea allergy dermatitis. Signs include intense itching, hair loss, (especially just in front of the tail), scabs, and red, irritated skin, which may lead to skin infections.
How Do Pets Get Fleas?
Pets can easily pick up fleas with any time spent outdoors. Indoor cats are at risk even if they just go out on the patio or share their home with a dog. Fleas can jump 10,000 times in a row to get to a host, and once they find one, they stay onboard. Females can lay an egg every hour, leading to an infestation in a matter of days.
Fleas and People
Fleas are content to drink human blood as well and can easily jump from your pet's fur to your skin. Some people develop a severe reaction to flea bites. Intense itching can lead to scratching and skin infections. To avoid flea bites, it's essential to keep your pets and your home flea-free. For every flea you see on your pet, vets estimate there are 100 more in your house.
Fleas and Your Home
When fleas lay eggs on your pet, some eggs may fall off and hatch on your carpet, bed, or other furniture. The new fleas then target you and your pet, feed on your blood, and lay more eggs. Carpets and humid areas are favorites for fleas. So replacing carpeting and keeping your home as dry as possible may help take away the welcome mat for fleas.
Tick Warning Signs
You can feel ticks while petting your cat or dog, and you can see them with the naked eye. They most often attach near the head, neck, ears, or paws. On cats, they are typically found around the ears and eyes. Ticks can carry dangerous diseases, and it doesn't take long for a pet to pick up the disease while a tick is feeding. If you find a tick on your pet, pull it out with tweezers as soon as possible.
Safe, Effective Tick Removal
Skip gasoline, nail polish, petroleum jelly, alcohol, or a hot match. These methods can force infected fluids back into the bite. Instead:
- Use gloves or tissue to cover your hands.
- Grasp it from the side, by its head, close to the skin.
- Pull straight up. Don't twist.
- Don't squeeze (or pop!) the bloated belly.
Wash the bite area and your hands. Mouth parts that remain rarely cause serious problems, but if you're concerned, call your vet.
How Do Pets Get Ticks?
Ticks crawl onto tall grass and shrubs and wait for a host to walk by. They can wait for a year without feeding. Dogs are most likely to pick up ticks while walking in the woods or high grass from spring through fall. Outdoor cats can pick up ticks in the same way. Ticks are more common in warm climates and certain wooded areas of the Northeast.
Brown Dog Tick
The brown dog tick, also called the kennel tick, is common across the U.S. It is unique among ticks because it can thrive indoors, making it a nuisance for kennels and homes with multiple dogs. The adult tick is reddish-brown and typically attaches around the ears or between a dog's toes. This tick rarely bites people, but may be a health threat to your pet. It carries ehrlichiosis (canine typhus) and other diseases that affect dogs.
Deer ticks feed on many types of mammals, including people. The adults are reddish-brown and thrive in wooded areas of the Northeast and Midwest. They are dangerous because they can transmit Lyme disease to dogs and people. If it's not treated quickly, Lyme disease can cause chronic joint pain and, occasionally, serious kidney disease.
American Dog Tick
One of the most common ticks is the American dog tick, which feeds on people as well as dogs. It's easy to spot the females because they have a large silver spot behind the head, and they swell to the size of a small grape after feeding. These ticks can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but only if they are attached for at least 5-20 hours. This disease can be fatal in dogs and may cause serious symptoms in people.
Signs of Tick-Borne Diseases
Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and ehrlichiosis cause similar symptoms in dogs, including:
- Loss of appetite
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Joint swelling or pain
These diseases can have serious complications, so prompt treatment is essential. Tick-borne diseases are rare in cats.
Lyme Disease Vaccine for Dogs
There is a vaccine to protect against Lyme disease in dogs, but it is recommended only for pets in high-risk areas. It is usually given in two doses with a yearly booster. It's best to ask your vet if the vaccine is appropriate for your pet.
Other Tick Concerns in Dogs
In addition to transmitting diseases, ticks can cause other health problems in dogs, including:
- Blood loss
- Skin irritation or infection
- Tick paralysis
Tick paralysis refers to muscle weakness caused by a toxin produced by certain ticks. Most dogs recover quickly once the ticks are removed.
Ticks and People
People are susceptible to many of the same tick-borne diseases that affect dogs. Lyme disease is probably the best known, with one of the first symptoms being a bull's-eye rash. You can't catch tick-borne diseases directly from your pet, but you can be bitten by the same ticks. You may also be exposed by touching a tick's blood while removing the parasite from your pet.
Ticks and Your Home
Ticks prefer warm, grassy areas and may thrive in unruly sections of your yard. The brown dog tick can also live and reproduce inside your home. Its favorite hiding spots include cracks, curtains, under rugs and furniture, and behind radiators.
Fighting Pests: Shampoos
Flea and tick shampoos are mainly useful for killing the fleas and ticks that are already on your pet. They are less effective at prevention. You can buy the shampoo without a prescription, but be sure to follow the directions carefully. You need to cover the animal's entire body and wait 10 minutes before rinsing.
Fighting Pests: Collars & Alternatives
Flea collars can be effective at warding off fleas and ticks, but they should never be worn by puppies or kittens. The Natural Resources Defense Council has also raised concerns about possible health risks for humans. One study found that residue from some types of flea collars may pose a risk to children and adults who touch their pets. The organization suggests using oral flea treatments as an alternative.
Fighting Pests: Tablets
Oral flea treatments, such as tablets, are available for dogs and cats, but these do not work against ticks. One type, called Capstar, is a quick fix that kills adult fleas for a 24-hour period. Other medications keep flea eggs from hatching and are given once a month. Some flea medications require a prescription. Check with your vet to see which treatment is right for your pet.
Fighting Pests: Topicals
Topical treatments are applied to your dog or cat's back and are highly effective for an entire month. Some topicals kill fleas and ticks, while others target fleas and their eggs. Brand names include Advantage, Advantix, Bio-Spot, and Frontline. Be sure to buy the right product for your pet and follow the instructions carefully.
Are Topical Treatments Safe?
The EPA has been investigating safety concerns surrounding topical flea and tick treatments. The agency has found that incorrect use of these products is a major cause of adverse reactions. Common mistakes include treating a cat with a product intended for dogs or using a large dog dose on a small dog. Check with your vet if you have any doubts about which dose is right for your pet.
'Green' Flea and Tick Remedies
Some people feed their pets brewer's yeast or garlic in hopes of creating an odor that will ward off fleas. But there is no scientific evidence to support this practice. Even worse, garlic can be toxic to both dogs and cats. One "green" strategy that does work: the flea comb. Flea combs are completely nontoxic and offer an effective way to remove fleas from pets that can't take medication.
Dangerous Natural Remedies
Several natural flea and tick remedies can cause severe reactions in cats and dogs. These include:
- Pennyroyal oil
- Garlic and onion
Check with your vet before giving your pet any type of herbal remedy.
Should You Use a Fogger?
Insect foggers, sometimes called bug bombs, can kill large amounts of fleas at once. These devices use strong pesticides and are only recommended for severe infestations. You and your pets must leave your home while the fogger is working. Follow the directions to determine when it is safe to return. Using too many foggers at once or returning home too soon can pose a health risk to you and your pets.
Keeping the Home Pest-Free
The first defense is to make your yard inhospitable to fleas and ticks. Mow the lawn regularly, trim shrubs, rake leaves, and keep garbage covered so it won't attract rodents. Inside the home, vacuum carpets often with a rotary brush or beater bar. Mop hardwood floors with detergent every week. And wash your sheets frequently.
Reviewed by Katherine Scott, DVM, DACVIM on Friday, November 19, 2010
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