Slideshow: What You Need to Know About Fleas and Ticks
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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 serious tick-borne illnesses. Both fleas and ticks are more common during the warmer months. But you can take steps 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 use a flea comb (a fine-toothed comb). Especially check the neck and around the base of the tail. You also can check the belly. You may see the fleas -- small dark spots that move -- or their droppings, which look like specks of dirt. Lots of scratching and hair loss are also signs that fleas may be feasting on your feline.
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 at risk. 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. 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. Female fleas can lay 40 to 50 eggs a day. That can lead to an infestation in a matter of days.
Fleas and People
Fleas like human blood too, and they can jump from your pet’s fur or bedding onto your skin. Some people develop a bad reaction to flea bites. Intense itching can lead to scratching and skin infections. To avoid flea bites, 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. Replace carpeting and keep your home as dry as possible to make your house less welcoming for fleas.
Tick Warning Signs
You can feel ticks while petting your cat or dog, and you can see them. They most often attach near the head, neck, ears, or paws. On cats, they're 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, try to remove it 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 the tick with tweezers 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 worried, 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 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's unique among ticks because it does well indoors. The adult tick is reddish-brown and typically attaches around the ears or between a dog’s toes. This tick rarely bites people, but it may be a health threat to your pet. It carries serious diseases that affect dogs, such as ehrlichiosis.
Deer ticks feed on many types of mammals, including people. The adults are reddish-brown and live in wooded areas of the Northeast and Midwest. They're dangerous because they can transmit Lyme disease to dogs and people. Lyme disease can cause fever and joint pain and, occasionally, serious kidney disease in dogs.
American Dog Tick
One of the most common ticks is the American dog tick. It feeds on people as well as dogs. It’s easy to spot the females, because they have a large silver spot behind the head. They swell to the size of a small grape after feeding. These ticks can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but only if they're 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 uncommon in cats, but they can get a tick infection called cytauxzoonosis, which is often fatal -- so do your best to keep pests off your cat and out of your home.
Lyme Disease Vaccine for Dogs
There is a vaccine to protect against Lyme disease in dogs who live in or may travel to high-risk areas. It's best to ask your vet if the vaccine is right for your pet.
Other Tick Concerns in Dogs
In addition to spreading diseases, ticks can cause other health problems in dogs, including:
Skin irritation or infection
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 can get many of the same tick-borne diseases that affect dogs. Lyme disease is probably the best known. One of the first symptoms is 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 it 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 don’t work as well to prevent ticks. Make sure you get the right kind. Some products for dogs can kill cats. You can buy the shampoo without a prescription, but follow the directions carefully. You need to cover the animal’s entire body and wait 10 minutes before rinsing.
Fighting Pests: Collars
Flea collars can ward off fleas and ticks. Read the labels and follow the directions on the package. Puppies and kittens may need collars with a lower dose of chemicals. Don’t let children play with a collar. Also, wash your hands with soap and water after handling it.
Fighting Pests: Tablets
Oral flea treatments, such as tablets, are available for dogs and cats. One type is a quick fix that kills adult fleas within 30 minutes. It can be taken daily. Other medications keep flea eggs from hatching and are given once a month. A newer product starts killing fleas in as little as 30 minutes and provides a full month of flea protection. Some flea medications require a prescription. Also, there is a new oral product for dogs only that kills fleas and ticks. Check with your vet to see which treatment is right for your pet.
Fighting Pests: Topicals
Topical treatments are put on your dog or cat’s back. They work well for a month. Some topicals kill fleas and ticks, while others target fleas and their eggs. Some dog products can kill cats, so ask your vet which product is right for your pet, and follow the instructions carefully.
Are Topical Treatments Safe?
If they are used correctly, yes. The EPA has been investigating safety concerns about topical flea and tick treatments. The agency says that using them wrong is a major cause of negative reactions. Common mistakes include treating a cat with a product meant 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 that the smell will ward off fleas. But there is no scientific evidence to support this. 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 a 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:
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 a lot 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's safe to return. Using too many foggers at once or returning home too soon can pose a health risk to you and your pets.
How to Keep the Home Pest-Free
The first defense is to make your yard unwelcoming 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. Empty canisters or throw away vacuum bags. Mop hardwood floors with detergent every week. And wash all bedding frequently.
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Environmental Protection Agency: "Flea Collars."
Illinois Department of Public Health: "Prevention & Control: Common Ticks."
Kansas State University: "Pests That Affect Human Health."
New York State Department of Health: "Pests and Pesticides."
Pet Education: "Common Flea and Tick Control Products," "Flea Control and Prevention," "The Use of Brewer's Yeast in Dogs and Cats," "Lyme Disease (Borreliosis) in Dogs," "Tick Control," "Ehrlichiosis in Dogs," "Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in Dogs," "The Use of Garlic & Onion in Dogs and Cats."
University of Florida: "Fleas: What They Are, What To Do."
EPA: "Companies Agree to Stop Selling Pet Collars Containing Pesticide to Protect Children."
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.