Veterinarians Guide to Fleas and Ticks for Pet Owners

Count Dracula can be quite scary, but fortunately, vampires are the stuff of myth and legend. However, there are some blood-suckers that are quite real, and they threaten the health of you and your pets every day. Fleas and ticks are two kinds of tiny pests that can latch onto dogs, cats, and even humans and will feed on their host's blood. In doing so, they can cause itching and other types of discomfort, and they can also transmit a variety of diseases, some of which can potentially be fatal.

What Are Fleas?

Fleas are tiny, wingless insects that travel by jumping; in fact, they can jump up to two feet and can do so 10,000 times without stopping. The most common type of flea is the cat flea, but contrary to its name, it is the flea most often found on dogs and humans as well as cats. Pets typically pick up fleas outdoors, though they can also get fleas from places where other animals with fleas have been, such as kennels. Fleas can be a nuisance, causing symptoms like itching and scabbing, but they can also carry tapeworms or transmit illnesses. Cat scratch disease is one concern, as it is transmitted between cats by fleas and can then be spread to humans. Fleas also can carry the bacterium behind the Black Death, which still kills people today. In addition, blood-sucking parasites such as fleas can cause anemia in their hosts.

What Are Ticks?

Ticks, like fleas, are tiny, parasitic creatures, but they are also arachnids, eight-legged creatures like spiders. Only one species of tick, the American dog tick, is known to feed on cats, but a variety of species will feed on dogs and humans, including the blacklegged tick, also known as the deer tick. This variety of tick is infamous for carrying Lyme disease, the most common insect-carried disease in the United States. Lyme disease can damage many systems of the body and, in rare cases, cause death. Ticks can also transmit other serious illnesses such as Powassan virus and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Prevention

For cats, the best way to prevent fleas and ticks is to keep them indoors, out of the habitats of these parasites. For dogs and outdoor cats, products such as collars, sprays, shampoos, and pills are available from veterinarians; these can be applied to pets to keep fleas and ticks at bay. Whenever you bring an outdoor pet inside, you should check the animal to make sure that it has not brought any ticks in with it and carefully remove any ticks that you find. Also, check with your veterinarian to see if your pet can be vaccinated against any diseases carried by these pests.

Treatment

If you find yourself with a flea or tick problem, the treatments are much the same in either case. Veterinarians can prescribe medications for flea- or tick-borne illnesses as well as topical medications, like dips, powders, or medicated shampoos, to use on your pet. Also, you will need to eliminate these bugs from your home; vacuum the carpets and upholstery thoroughly, wash all bedding (including your pet's bed, if it has one), and apply anti-flea or anti-tick treatments to these surfaces. In addition, make sure to keep the lawn mowed and use similar treatments there.

When to See a Vet

If you suspect a flea or tick problem with your pet, it's always a good idea to turn to veterinarians for advice on products and tactics to use to address the issue. However, this is especially true if your pet shows signs of a serious health problem. For instance, if your pet has pale gums, feels cold, and acts listless, it could have parasitic anemia. If the animal shows signs of hair loss, red skin, and scabbing, it could have dermatitis caused by a flea allergy, which can lead to skin infections. Paralysis can also be caused by a tick bite.