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My puppy pal Stanley once suffered a case of fleas he just couldn’t kick. I kept thinking they were gone, and then a week or two later, more would appear. I started referring to his fleas as “the itchy-scratchies” because it sounded friendlier, and I wanted to offer my poor pup whatever solace I could. But let’s be honest – there’s nothing friendly about persistent parasites that feed on your li’l buddy’s blood.

The Nuts and Bolts of Fleas and Ticks

Fleas are wingless insects, and ticks are eight-legged arachnids. Both are parasites that feed off your furry friend’s blood and can transmit diseases to your pal and you. Entomologists have identified 2,200 flea types and 800 tick species. It’s no wonder that fleas and ticks are two of the most common concerns among pet parents.

Flea Facts

Fleas thrive in warmer temperatures (65-80º F) and live anywhere between a couple weeks to a full year with their lifespan including egg, larvae, pupae, and adult stages. An adult female can produce as many as 50 eggs in a single day, which can result in tens of thousands of fleas in just a couple months.

Making matters worse, the pupal stage lasts 8-13 days, and these barely perceptible whitish cocoons can be hidden in your pup’s fur as well as in your carpet, upholstery, bedding, or yard. This explains why I kept thinking my pal Stanley’s fleas were long gone when, really, they were just waiting to emerge.

Contrary to popular belief, fleas don’t bite. They attach to your pal by inserting their proboscis (a long tubular organ) under the skin and sucking like you would from a straw.

Tick Basics

Ticks are prevalent in the wooded areas of the Northeast but live in virtually any warm climate. They prefer tall grasses and thick brush and are typically more active in late spring and summer. Tick types – and the transmittable diseases that correspond – are closely tied to geographic location, so it’s a good idea to speak with your veterinarian about which tick species live nearby.

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Particular life cycles are dependent upon species, but in general ticks follow four stages – egg, larvae, nymph, and adult – with the latter two being the stages where they attach to your pup. Unlike fleas, ticks do bite. They also bury their heads under the skin and gorge. An adult female can grow as much as 100 times its original size when feeding!

symptoms of flea or tick infestation in dogs and cats _ British shorthair cat grooming

Symptoms

If your pup has fleas, you may notice “flea dirt” before you spot any critters. This dark dusting is actually flea droppings. Additional signs include:

Just like my nickname “the itchy-scratchies” indicates, a flea infestation causes major discomfort for your furry friend. Be on the lookout for behavioral changes like:

  • Restlessness
  • Excessive itching, scratching, licking, or biting
  • Frequent head shaking
  • Skin twitching

Fleas can carry infectious agents, like tapeworm eggs and certain bacteria, so it’s a good idea to also note any changes in eating habits or general well-being.

Ticks, while easier to see, can be harder to notice. This is because ticks don’t usually cause your li’l buddy physical discomfort, and you may not notice any change until your dog exhibits symptoms of the diseases passed on through ticks. That’s why it’s important to inspect your pal regularly and speak with your veterinarian any time you notice a behavioral change.

complications from flea and tick infestation _ French bulldog being examined by veterinarian

Flea and Tick Complications

Severe flea and tick infestations can lead to anemia or excessive blood loss. In puppies and kittens, a shortage of red blood cells can be life threatening, so call your veterinarian right away if you have any concerns. Some doggies develop flea allergy dermatitis, an allergic reaction to flea saliva, and may need prescription allergy medication.

With ticks, pups can also suffer from skin irritations, as well as a nervous system disorder called tick paralysis. But the main concern is that ticks can transmit diseases, such as Lyme disease and Cytauxzoonosis. Some conditions can even cause coma or death, so it’s important to call your veterinarian if your dog experiences:

  • Fever
  • Swollen joints or lymph nodes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Kidney troubles
  • Jaundice
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Depression

Diagnosis

Your veterinarian can do a simple physical examination to confirm an infestation. If there is any concern about anemia or additional complications, blood work and special tests may be necessary. If your dog has suffered a tick bite, it’s a good idea to bring the tick with you to your appointment if possible. This will help your veterinarian determine the species and associated transmittable diseases.

How to Spot Fleas and Ticks

Fleas most commonly attach to your furry friend’s tummy and head or at the base of their tail. If you don’t see any fleas – remember, they are excellent jumpers and can move fast – try brushing your buddy with a flea comb. Get as close to the skin as you can and keep a bowl of soapy water close by in case you catch a few fleas and need to dispose of them. You can also try combing your pup over a sheet of white paper so that you can examine any “flea dirt” that falls off of your dog. If the brown dust turns red when moistened with water, you’re facing a flea infestation.

Larger and less nimble, ticks are easier to find. Simply finger-comb your dog, searching for pea-sized bumps. You can also try using a flea comb, but be gentle if you hit any bumps or snags! It’s very important that you don’t damage the tick’s body because it will be much harder to remove and can trigger the spread of disease or infection. Ticks like dark, moist places, so take extra care to check your pup’s ears, groin area, “armpits,” and in between their toes.

treating flea and tick infestation in dogs and cats _ chocolate Labrador getting a bath

Flea and Tick Treatment

If your veterinarian confirms a flea infestation, you’ll need to act fast in treating your pup, all other furry family members, and your home. Your treatment plan could include:

  • Oral medications
  • Topical treatments (shampoos, sprays, powders)
  • Deep cleaning your home (washing bedding, steam-cleaning carpets and upholstery)
  • Home sprays or foggers
  • Lawn treatments

To treat a tick bite, you should remove the tick (without any twisting or jerking motions!) and disinfect the bite area. Wear rubber gloves since contact with tick blood can transmit disease to you and your doggie, and save the tick in a lidded jar containing alcohol in case your veterinarian needs to examine it. Try to be as soothing as you can since your li’l buddy may be nervous or uncomfortable.

For detailed tick removal steps, check out these guidelines from our strategic partner the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® (ASPCA®). If you notice any further symptoms or behavioral changes, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.

Flea and Tick Prevention for Dogs

Like many pet ailments, the best offense is a good defense. All of your furry family members should be treated year-round with flea and tick control products. These can be prescription or over-the-counter, and often require application every 30 days. Ask your veterinarian which product they recommend for your pal. Additional prevention tips include:

  • Brush your pup weekly with a flea comb
  • Wash doggie bedding regularly
  • Vacuum your carpets daily (and empty the bag)
  • Inspect your dog after spending significant time outdoors
  • Keep your lawn cut short and free of tall weeds and rake clippings
  • Keep outdoor trashcans covered

flea and tick care for indoor cats _ black and white cat with blue eyes

Indoor Cats Get Fleas and Ticks, Too!

Even indoor cats can be susceptible to flea and tick infestations. These unwanted creepy-crawlers can get inside on dogs (if you have them), through small tears in screens or gaps around windows, or even on you.

Kitties show the same symptoms as their canine companions, so watch for “flea dirt” and eggs, hair loss, scabs or irritated skin, excessive scratching, or pale gums. Also like puppies, young kittens are at a higher risk of anemia or blood loss. Your feline friend should get monthly preventative treatments, but make sure you do not use products designed for dogs on your cat – this can be a serious health risk. If you suspect fleas or ticks, grab a flea comb and consult your veterinarian.

Pet Health Insurance Can Help

Whether you’re scheduling regular flea and tick prevention, fighting an infestation, or treating a tick-borne illness, an ASPCA Pet Health Insurance plan can help cover the cost of your pal’s care. Don’t wait until the warm weather wakes up the pests. Get a quote today!

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