Undertanding Flea & Tick Prevention
Once you see a flea or a tick on your pet—or in your house—you’re too late. Instead, try to avoid seeing them altogether
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 once these pests make themselves at home, we realize showing them the door is 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, and fleas also can carry the causative agents of Cat Scratch disease. Ticks carry the organisms that 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 lays 40 to 50 eggs daily. The eggs develop into maggot-like larvae and progress to a cocoon stage. These cocoons 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 less than 10 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 single treatment for fleas isn’t enough.
Pet owners often discover a flea problem because of their pet’s severe itching, which is actually 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 discomfort. Therefore, it’s best to use preventive tactics to 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 once a month year round. Consistent use of safe prevention products is the primary method of eradicating and managing fleas. Newly hatched young-adult fleas need a blood meal within two or three days of hatching from their cocoons to survive. 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 they’re itching.)
Treating your pet’s environment is also part of controlling and preventing flea infestations. Fleas lay their eggs on your pet, but the eggs usually fall off within a few hours. 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 (ugh!) your bed. Frequent cleaning or vacuuming can help reduce the pupal and larval stages of fleas in the carpet; treating the entire house, or the whole yard, isn’t usually necessary.
But don’t forget that fleas can gain access to your house or yard in many ways, such as from wildlife, neighborhood cats, rodents, and you to name a few. Also remember that if your dogs or cats are allowed access to other areas—such as parks, nature areas, crawlspaces, or even the neighbor’s yard—they’ll have ample opportunity to encounter fleas. Therefore, even if you’re treating your pet, areas of the home and yard are likely to also need regular attention.
TICKS: EXPANDING THEIR DISEASE-CARRYING REACH
Like fleas, ticks can now be found throughout most of the country. While the severity of tick infestations varies by region, ticks are now spreading into areas that previously had no tick problems.
Unlike fleas, ticks may not cause irritation when they attach to your pet’s skin. Ticks have biting mouthparts, and there’s little sensation at the bite site. 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 engorged with blood, they grow in size and often look bloated. These bloated ticks are easier to spot, but difficult to remove. If you see a bloated tick, your best bet is to visit your veterinarian so he or she can remove it and check for any additional ticks.
There are several species of ticks. All of them pose a risk to pets and people. Ticks commonly are 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, both of which can cause organ damage and neurological symptoms that are difficult to resolve. Again, the lesson here is it’s best to protect your pets—and yourself—from ticks rather than react to them.
Most ticks lurk in 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—such as you or your pet. Considering these stealth travelers, the most reliable plan is to keep your pet on a monthly tick preventive all year. Conveniently, protection from ticks is combined with flea protection is many products. Your veterinarian will recommend the products that are 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 tick-infested outdoor areas, wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and headgear to prevent tick exposure. Afterwards, be sure to check both your pets and your family for ticks.
So remember this mantra: When it comes to fleas and ticks, it’s best—and safest—to prevent infestation than it is to deal with the consequences. Your cat’s and dog’s veterinarian, as an expert in parasite control and prevention, can recommend the best products to prevent infestation and disease. (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 parasite free—and ensure that your home sports a “no vacancy” sign when it comes to fleas and ticks.
The risk-free myth
Some circumstances seem like they’d be guaranteed flea and tick free. Not so. Pets need prevention even in the cases outlined here.
Indoor pets. You’ve seen bugs inside your house. Fleas and ticks sneak indoors too. So even pets that don’t venture outside—such as the indoor cat or the dog that only goes in the yard for potty breaks—are at risk of flea and tick infestation. Granted, their infestation chances are less than outdoor pets, but you all but eliminate their risk with monthly prevention.
Cold-weather months. Fall and winter 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 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 and can be present in the environment any time of year. The only way to ensure your dog or cat is safe from fleas and ticks all year is to keep them on a parasite preventive all year. Consider that monthly application in winter a holiday gift.
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 will recommend the product that 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).
Oral Flea Control
- Available as a palatable, beef-flavored, chewable tablet, therefore, generally easy to administer to most dogs.
- No potential for a 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 wait for your pet to swim or bathe. (Weekly swimming or bathing may reduce the effectiveness of some topicals.)
- Won’t interfere with other topical medications.
Topical Flea Control
- No risk of your pet vomiting up the medication.
- Good for dogs with food allergies.
- No worries about whether your pet ate the whole tablet.
- More topical products available for use in cats.