Controlling these pests isn’t easy, but the right information will help keep fleas and ticks off your pet and out of your home
As a veterinarian who grew up in the South and practiced in Southern California, I’ve witnessed some extreme flea and tick infestations. I’ve seen dogs with ticks so dense that not a square inch of healthy skin could be found, cats whose skin literally crawled with voraciously feeding adult fleas, and houses with hundreds of ticks scuttling across the floor and walls. Fortunately, such extreme infestations are uncommon today thanks to the safe, effective, and convenient control products available. But fleas and ticks are still invading our homes, feeding on pets and people, transmitting diseases, and causing misery.
In the distant past these tiny arthropods were dealt with primarily by mechanical means of combing and picking off individual fleas and ticks. This may have made folks feel like they were doing something, but it wasn’t very effective. Older remedies made use of noxious chemicals to repel and kill these pests. Even today people continue to search for the solution to flea and tick infestation. Why can’t our superior intellect eradicate these lowly pests, these parasites, these…bugs?
The fact is, fleas and ticks have been around from the time mammals appeared on earth, and they’ve been a source of discomfort and disease ever since. These pests are extremely adaptable and infest and feed on everything from mouse to man. They’re doing very well, thank you. Part of the problem is that some common myths and misconceptions about fleas and ticks still exist. So let’s dispel them here.
Myth: If you can’t see ‘em, they’re gone
Over the past few decades, new generations of chemicals and drugs have become extremely effective at controlling fleas and ticks. Internally and topically administered products that impair reproduction, inhibit maturation, and repel and kill ectoparasites do work. They may work too well, because we’ve been lulled into a place where we think, “That’ll get ‘em!” And indeed it does get many of them. But we tend to forget about the fleas and ticks we can’t see or reach, and that’s one reason why we sometimes seem to be losing the flea-and-tick wars.
Experts in flea biology have taught us that while adult fleas and ticks live most of their lives on the host, they do live parts of their life cycle as pre-adults in the environment. In fact, adult fleas living on your pet account for just 5% of the total number of fleas in your environment. Fleas and ticks both have four stages of development.
For fleas, these are egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Adult fleas feed on pet blood then mate and produce eggs. Larvae emerge from these eggs and feed on blood particles in flea feces. The larvae then develop into adult fleas resting inside cocoons. When they emerge, they jump on the pet and begin to feed—and the cycle starts all over again. (If there is no host handy when fleas hatch, they can go for a good while without feeding. So even if pets and people aren’t home for a few days, an infestation can quickly occur when they return.)
Tick stages are egg, larva, nymph, and adult. After feeding and mating, adult female ticks drop from their host and lay hundreds to thousands of eggs. These eggs develop into tiny larvae, which molt into eight-legged nymphs. Nymphs then molt into adult ticks.
Eradicating fleas and ticks at every stage isn’t easy. Even in households where aggressive flea control is practiced, fleas and ticks can and frequently do re-establish their hold.
Myth: Fleas and ticks are a warm-weather problem
There is a common belief that fleas and ticks are a seasonal concern: They come out in the warmer weather and die off in the colder seasons. We look forward to those first frosts or snows that seem to send the little pests packing and give us a few months respite before the darn things reappear. Freezing cold weather is enough to control the fleas and ticks outdoors, right? You’d think so, wouldn’t you?
If weather alone would prevent insects and arthropods from thriving, we wouldn’t have fleas in the first place.
But enter the concept of microclimates. No matter how wet or white or cold it may get, there are areas—underground in burrows, in sheds and outbuildings, under decks, and around foundations—where the temperatures, food supply, and overall conditions are sufficient to maintain a population of reproducing fleas and ticks. (If weather alone would prevent insects and arthropods from thriving, we wouldn’t have yard pests, cockroaches, or fleas in the first place.)
The reality is these critters possess an incredible ability to survive and, when conditions in the environment become more ideal, the populations explode. Cold weather reduces—but doesn’t eliminate—flea and tick infestations.
Myth: Indoor pets don’t need protection
While there is no doubt that outdoor pets face much greater exposure, it is important to recognize that fleas can and do infest totally indoor animals. Where do these fleas come from? For starters, they hitchhike their way into homes on people’s clothes, other indoor-
outdoor pets in the family, and unwanted pests like mice and rats. (Unfortunately these rodents do exist in, around, and under our homes.) Outdoor animals that sleep around houses or find their way into crawl spaces and basements all could potentially introduce fleas into your home.
While fleas and ticks certainly find it difficult to survive in extremely cold or hot and dry environments, remember that people don’t live outdoors. We air condition, humidify, and heat our homes so they are comfortable for us—and are perfect microclimates for fleas. And these indoor fleas are just as hungry as the ones in the yard.
Myth: Fleas and ticks are only a problem for pets
Fleas and ticks can make both you and your pet miserable—not to mention downright ill. Fleas can transmit rickettsiosis and bartonellosis (also called cat scratch disease) to people and can serve as an intermediate host for tapeworms. Ticks can also transmit a number of diseases, including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. So flea and tick control isn’t just important for your pet’s health, it’s important for yours.
Flea and tick control isn’t just important for your pet’s health, it’s important for yours.
What can you do?
This might sound pretty hopeless. But while complete control or eradication isn’t likely, there are some simple steps everyone can take to minimize the population of fleas and ticks:
- Be honest with yourself about the problem. You almost certainly have fleas in and around your house, and you very likely have ticks living in the zone around your home. In some extreme cases, you may even have ticks living in the walls of your home. If so, find out what kind of tick you’re dealing with. Sometimes it’s best to set up an appointment with a professional exterminator.
- Practice year-round flea and tick control by using a product recommended by your veterinarian every month and on every pet. This means using the product in January as well as June and treating all cats and dogs in your family regardless of where they spend their days.
- Remove brush debris from around your home. These areas present opportunities for small flea- and tick-carrying animals to nest and provide a source of infection for dogs and cats.
- Get rid of that old upholstered furniture on the porch or in the garage where your dog or cat loves to hang out. These are perfect flea nests and, unless you get rid of them, they’ll contribute to ongoing infestations.
- Close off crawl spaces and screen over vents under the house and leading into attics that serve as runways for small mammals that carry fleas and ticks in with them.
Controlling fleas and ticks isn’t easy, but it is doable. By arming yourself with information, discussing appropriate products with your veterinarian, and taking steps to control environmental and wild life factors, you can win the flea-and-tick fight.