Fleas and ticks are not only gross and annoying, but they can also spread diseases and lead to secondary conditions such as anemia or skin disease. Luckily, there are products available that not only kill any fleas or ticks that land on your pet, but also prevent flea infestations. We will go through some basic information on fleas and ticks in order to understand why it is so important to prevent these small parasites from causing any damage in the first place.
The flea life cycle starts by the adult flea jumping onto an unprotected dog or cat. This happens from being outside, having contact with an infested animal, or going inside a house or building that is infested. The adult fleas will begin to feed immediately on the new host, and 20-24 hours later the females will start producing eggs. A female adult flea can lay more than 40 eggs per day! The eggs are laid on the host but then fall onto the environment within a few hours. The majority of the lifecycle actually takes place in the environment, not on the cat or dog. Eggs then develop into larvae, then pupae, then adult. The timeline from egg to adult can range from 21 to 35 days. However, if there is no sufficient environmental stimulus, such as warm weather or noise, the adult can remain pre-emerged in in the pupal stage for up to 30 weeks. Typically, the newly emerged adults will the jump onto the living host and continue the life cycle. In cold climates, fleas will survive either as adults living on a host, which can last over 100 days, or as pre-emerged adults that are not yet stimulated. To find out more, check this out.
Obviously, fleas cause pets to be itchy and have major gross-out factor. However, they can lead to more serious issues. Severe flea infestation alone can lead to anemia and weakness, generally seen in young, small, or geriatric pets. Also, flea saliva can lead to an allergic response called flea allergy dermatitis. This means there is a severe reaction to the fleas that can lead to severe itchiness, inflammation and infection of the skin. Not every pet is susceptible to this, which is why there may be only one dog in a three dog household that seems to be really itchy from the fleas.
Fleas can actually transmit organisms as well. A common one is tapeworms, which is an internal parasite that lives in the intestines. Another organism is Bartonella hensalae, commonly known as Cat Scratch Disease or Cat Scratch Fever (yes, it’s a real thing!). Typically cats become the carrier of this bacterium after being infected with fleas. They can then spread it to humans through a scratch contaminated with flea feces or cat blood from grooming, which can cause significant illness. In summary, I’d say it’s best for both the pets and their owners to prevent fleas in the first place!
The tick life cycle is a little more straight forward. There are four stages to the tick life cycle: Egg, Larva, Nymph, and Adult. The last three stages are all capable of attaching to a host and feeding. Typically you will only find nymphs or adults on dogs and cats, while the smaller larvae and nymphs tend to prefer smaller mammals or birds. In between stages they must drop from the host in order to molt to the next stage in the environment.
Of course, ticks carry diseases as well. Ticks will differ in what diseases they carry depending on their species, meaning each tick species will only carry certain diseases. Ixodes scapularis, or the black-legged tick, is common in this area and is a major carrier of Lyme disease and anaplasmosis. Rhipicephalus sanguineus, or the brown dog tick, on the other hand, carries other major diseases including ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Lyme disease and anaplasmosis are very common in this area. If you’d like to get a sense of how common it is compared to other areas, visit the Companion Animal Parasite Council website. In house testing is available for Lyme disease, anaplasma, and ehrlichia.
There are a lot of options out there for preventatives, so it’s important to know that there is a big range from safe and effective preventatives to ineffective and possibly dangerous products. Of course, speaking with your veterinarian is the best way to become educated in the different options. Every pet has different needs, and like with heartworm preventatives, it is important to tailor the preventatives to each individual.