Flea and Tick Prevention

Fleas and ticks are a common problem for household pets, especially dogs and cats. You can save your pet from a lot of discomfort and potentially from pest-borne illnesses with preventive treatments recommended by your veterinarian. 

Fleas

Fleas are the leading cause of skin problems in cats and dogs. They also infest a great many other animals, including rabbits, squirrels, rats, mice, ferrets, and many species of birds, although small mammals in captivity are not affected as frequently as dogs, outdoor cats and wild creatures. They grow and survive by feeding on animals' blood, and result in significant problems for the animals they bite by causing allergic reactions and spreading disease.

An allergic reaction to a flea bite causes itching, making the host animal extremely uncomfortable. In addition to being plagued by allergic reactions, itching, sores and scabs as a result of being bitten by fleas, animals can develop illnesses because of the bites. Although humans do not become infested with fleas, they can suffer allergies to flea bites, including hives.

How Do I Know if My Pet has Fleas?

In severe cases of infestation, fleas can be seen jumping around and on the animal. In both dogs and cats, other indicators of flea infestation, depending on its extent, include:

  • Restlessness
  • Head-shaking
  • Excessive licking, scratching, biting of the fur or skin
  • Hair loss
  • Allergic reactions
  • Anemia
  • Tapeworm (transmitted by fleas)

Examining the affected animal's coat using a flea comb can confirm the presence of fleas. Black specks of flea dirt (feces) may be visible, as well as the tiny hopping creatures themselves. The fleas and flea dirt are particularly visible on the pet’s lower abdomen and groin where the fur may be less dense and the skin may be lighter.

How Do I get Rid of Fleas on My Pet?

Fleas have a 4-stage life cycle, and all stages need to be addressed to take care of a flea problem. Treatments are animal-specific; for example, some treatments for dogs can be harmful for cats. A product's label indicates what type of animal it is appropriate for. The veterinarian should be consulted before treating small mammals or birds for fleas.

Certain treatments are less effective than others because the protection they offer is short-lived and they do not target all stages of a flea's life cycle. These include:

  • Baths
  • Dips
  • Collars
  • Sprays/powders

There are two other types of treatment. One, available under brand names including Frontline and Advantage, is a liquid medicine that is placed between the animal's shoulder blades. It is effective in killing adult fleas for up to a month and preventing larvae from hatching, or from developing at all.

The other treatment includes oral and injectable medication that keep female fleas from producing viable eggs. This treatment, however, does not kill adult fleas, so it must be used in conjunction with other treatment.

Treating the animal alone is not enough to eliminate a flea problem. Fleas can continue to live in carpets, bedding and furniture, so an infestation can only be effectively treated by eliminating fleas at all stages of development from the household. For this purpose, household sprays and bombs are not usually as effective as treatments applied by professional exterminators.

Ticks

Dogs are the most likely pet to get a tick, but other pets can be affected as well. Ticks are a serious issue because they can cause tickborne diseases like Lyme disease. Prevention is key when it comes to protecting your pets from ticks.

Ask your veterinarian to recommend the best tick prevention product for your pet, which may include topicals, chewables or other medications. If you think your dog has been bitten, consult your vet about next steps.

Check your dog for ticks after you’ve taken them for a walk, especially in areas with tall grasses. Remove any you find. Use a tick key to remove embedded ticks. Check the dark nooks and crannies, like behind the dog’s ears, around its tail, between the back legs and front legs, and between the toes.

Lyme Disease in Dogs and Horses

Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, which can be transmitted by ticks to both animals and humans. Other animals that can become infected include deer, horses, cattle, cats (rarely) and mice.

What are the Symptoms of Lyme Disease?

Ticks are less visible on animals, particularly those with dark coats, than they are on humans, and animals do not usually develop an observable bull's-eye rash. Symptoms of Lyme disease usually show up earlier in dogs than in horses, and while some of the symptoms are the same, dogs are more likely to experience the disease's early flu-like symptoms, which include fever, lethargy, loss of appetite and swollen lymph nodes. Both dogs and horses, if infected with Lyme disease, may show the following symptoms weeks or even months after the tick bite:

  • Lameness, especially "shifting leg" lameness
  • Swollen joints (arthritis)
  • Pain upon being touched

While the most frequently reported symptom of Lyme disease in horses is arthritis, horses are also apt to develop symptoms such as eye disease, dermatitis and neurological complications, not common in dogs.

How Do I Treat My Dog or Horse for Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease in dogs and horses is effectively treated with doxycycline, an antibiotic with anti-inflammatory properties. In dogs, symptoms generally abate rapidly and completely. Dogs are much less likely to develop a chronic variety of Lyme disease than humans. Unfortunately, horses, although they become ill with the disease more rarely than dogs, more frequently develop its chronic form. Consult your veterinarian about the best treatment options.

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American Veterinary Medical Association World Small Animal Veterinary Association AAVMC