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The Ultimate Guide to Flea and Tick Prevention

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“Fleas? My pet doesn’t have fleas!”

We’ve all heard a pet parent repeat these words, and you might have even said them yourself. “Many people think that if their pet doesn’t go outdoors, the pet can’t be bitten by fleas or ticks,” says Christie Long, DVM, CVA and Chief Veterinarian at PetCoach. And if you don’t think there’s a threat, then you probably aren’t using tick or flea prevention for dogs or cats. As Dr. Long explains, “both parasites will hitchhike into the house on pets that do go outdoors, and fleas are especially good at this.” So thinking your pet doesn’t have—or couldn’t have—fleas or ticks is where the problem begins.

Fleas are a hidden menace, lying in wait to emerge as adults and move in to their cozy new home deep within your pet’s fur. The reason why you might not think they’re alive and kicking in your household or on your pet is that only 1 in 100 fleas can actually be seen. Those that you can see are adult fleas, which only make up 5% of any flea population. So where are the rest? Most are eggs, larvae or pupae that are busy growing and developing into the fleas you know and certainly don’t love. And although ticks can sometimes be visible, they are tough to spot underneath your pet’s coat, even with shorthaired breeds. Ignoring the warning signs and taking your chances without flea prevention for cats and dogs can lead to covert tick cliques and flea infestations.

Fleas and Ticks 101

Before you learn how to stop these creatures from taking up residence on your pet, you should know who you’re dealing with. Let’s start with ticks. These bugs look like insects, but they’re actually arachnids, and as fully developed adults, they have eight legs, just like spiders. They can be black, brown or tan, and can range from a millimeter up to a centimeter in length. The most common tick, the Brown Dog Tick, is pretty much everywhere—it lives in every state in the US. Other types of ticks have their own favorite regions, like the Deer Tick (or Black-Legged Tick) that resides on animals across the eastern side of the U.S. and northern Midwest and can spread Lyme disease. According to Brad Leahy, owner of B.O.G. Pest Control in Maryland, there are over 600 species of ticks in all. All of them have one thing in common, though—they’re true parasites, and they literally can’t live without ingesting your pet’s blood (or yours!).

Several hundred different varieties of fleas can be found in the U.S., and they really are insects—the most unwelcome kind. Both Leahy and Dr. Long remark that the most common type is the common “cat flea.” They’re pretty tiny, and can grow up to 4 millimeters as adults. It’s hard to find fleas on cats and dogs because their bodies are made for hiding. “These fleas are usually a shiny red-brown color,” the perfect camouflage against many pets’ hair, and their bodies “are very flat, making it difficult to see them on your pet,” says Leahy. Even worse, they’ve got a tough armor of hard plates for protection, and their feet double as claws that dig into the skin to resist being scratched or pulled off. And of course, they dine on the same food as ticks.

How It All Starts

A flea’s life begins when two adult fleas… well, you get the picture, and the female will lay eggs just two days after. They can lay 40-50 eggs per day. You’re probably starting to see how quickly a flea infestation develops and why flea prevention for dogs and cats is so important. Leahy explains that after these soon-to-be fleas fall off your pet’s coat, they “hang out in moist, shady, cool places. They often hide in shrubs, fallen leaves and trees—anywhere that they can find cover from the sun.” Inside the home, they can be “easily transferred by your dog or cat to carpets, rugs and furniture.” Eggs can hatch within two days to two weeks, and they are now larvae. At this stage, they basically eat and grow strong. And what are they feasting on? “Once they hatch, they subsist on the droppings of adult fleas (fondly referred to as ‘flea dirt,’ which is really just flea poop), the hatched shells of other eggs, environmental debris, and their siblings and cousins,” notes Dr. Long. When they’re ready, they form a cocoon and become pupae. After just two weeks in the cocoon, they become adult fleas, and they can stay in the cocoon for days, weeks, months and even years!

As for ticks, the stages are similar, but more drawn out. In the fall, adult female ticks will gorge themselves on a blood meal first, and then drop to the ground to lay up to 3,000 eggs. If they can’t find a host, they wait till the next spring. It’s during this time and throughout the summer that the eggs hatch as larvae, and they find their first victims. “As larvae, they can live almost two years without food before finding a host,” says Leahy. While fleas rapidly become adults before seeking out your pet, ticks will attach and feed three times throughout their phases of development. Every cat or dog tick bite or flea infestation begins with adult fleas or larva-stage ticks.

Move-In Day

These stealthy pests need our pets to survive, and they are really good at finding them. Both fleas and ticks pack their bags and lie in wait until a four-legged flea-and-tick B and B strolls by. An animal’s coat makes the perfect setup—complete with an unlimited buffet, cozy shelter and tons of breeding space.

Remember the cocooned adult flea and the just-hatched larval tick? They can sense body warmth and CO2, and when they do, they make their move. Tick larvae grab onto small rodents or birds as they pass by, and fleas jump onto your pets. Leahy describes the process in detail, remarking that “ticks find a host by sensing body heat and moisture, or by detecting animal’s breath or body odor. They usually wait along pathways, holding onto the tips of grasses and shrubs with their back legs, and holding their front legs out in front of them to climb onto an unsuspecting host. When a dog or cat brushes by, ticks climb on.” Fleas on cats and dogs will start laying eggs in two days to start the cycle again, which can lead to a flea infestation. The just-hatched ticks, on the other hand, will feed, drop off, and molt into six-legged nymphs back on the ground. They’re dormant in the fall and winter, and in the second year of their lives, they attach to larger hosts, like rabbits or raccoons and feed throughout the summer. That fall, they molt again and become eight-legged adults. The females then have to find an even larger animal for a host so they can feed again and lay eggs. That’s when it’s open season on pets, and the Brown Dog Ticks, Deer Ticks and all their friends move in to the nearest mobile tick hotel.

Tiny Bites, Big Trouble

Now you have fleas on cats and dogs, and it’s not pretty. Not only are they at risk for ticks or a flea infestation, but the bites can cause major discomfort, diseases and serious health issues. Once these parasites settle in, they’ll start gorging on blood. Fleas start biting immediately, and can keep feeding for two hours. A tick can become firmly planted within just 10 minutes, or in two hours at most, and will slowly feed for several days until it’s full. For ticks, it’s kind of like drilling for oil; they insert a feeding tube with barbs that keep it firmly in place. They’re so devious that “some ticks also secrete saliva that anesthetizes the skin so your dog or cat can’t feel where it has attached itself,” says Leahy. The poor host, aka your pet, will suffer as the fleas and ticks keep biting. If she has flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), just one or two bites can send her into a tailspin of itchy skin, scratching, hair loss and sores that can become infected. But these persistent vampires of the bug world can do all sorts of damage aside from FAD. Dr. Long explains that “other flea-transmitted diseases include tapeworms, hemobartonellosis (typically referred to as ‘cat scratch fever’) and mycoplasmosis.” She goes on to say that smaller animals like cats and kittens can become severely anemic due to the loss of blood. “Female fleas consume about 14 microliters of blood per day, and males consume a bit less. On average, 72 fleas can remove 1 milliliter (about 0.2 teaspoons) of blood per day.” And ticks are well-known for transmitting “Lyme disease, tick fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis and babesiosis.” You might not have heard all of these diseases, but they can cause rashes and flu-like symptoms, and some can lead to life-threatening complications.

Ditching the Itch

Dealing with a full-on flea infestation and cat and dog tick removal are no fun. So now is the time to admit that you, along with every other pet household, are vulnerable to things like Brown Dog Ticks and fleas on cats. Which means you definitely need to be using tick and flea prevention for dogs and cats. And it should be year-round, especially in warmer climates. You’ll need a three-tiered approach to protect your pets, so let’s get started.

On Your Pet: Start by putting all the pets in your home on monthly tick and flea prevention for cats and dogs. Following Dr. Long’s advice, “It’s important to use an effective product that contains ingredients that have been proven to remove adult fleas and eggs, and continue to repel adult fleas and ticks for some time after application or ingestion.” You’ve got some options here—oral tablets, topical treatments and flea collars. K9 Advantix II Flea & Tick Treatment for Dogs and Advantage II for dogs or cats are solutions that you squeeze onto your pet’s skin to repel and kill ticks, fleas and mosquitoes. If you want a long-lasting solution that you don’t have to worry about each month, try Seresto 8 Month Flea & Tick Collar for dogs or cats. These collars give up to eight months of protection. Most importantly, be sure “never to use a topical flea preventive that is formulated for dogs on your cat. These products often contain pyrethrin, and cats are extremely sensitive to it. It can cause seizures and even death, even in the relatively small doses in these products,” warns Dr. Long.

Inside the House: Remember that 95% of the fleas you see and most of the ticks, too, aren’t even on your pet. That means they’re lurking in the shadows—in all the dark places around your home. And since they can live more than 100 days without blood, according to Leahy, you can’t rely on simply treating your pet. Spraying your home with an effective treatment is one of the most crucial steps in flea prevention for dogs and cats. Vet’s Best Flea and Tick Home Spray uses peppermint oil and clove extract to kill fleas, flea eggs, ticks and mosquitoes on contact. Another good bet is Virbac Knockout, which kills ticks and helps prevent flea infestations for four months. You’ll also need to vacuum and wash bedding regularly to get rid of eggs and the flea dirt they feed on.

In the Yard: Fleas are a real problem from in the summer and fall in the Northern U.S. and throughout the year in warmer climates. And although ticks are most prevalent from spring to fall, some species are active all year. To take back control of your yard and avoid flea infestations, you’ll need to make their breeding grounds uninhabitable, by their standards. Leahy notes that “you may be more susceptible to flea outbreaks if you have a heavily wooded yard or thick grasses around your property.” Like it or not, you’ll have to get out the mower or weed eater out to cut down any tall grass. Then, treat the lawn with a solution like Vet’s Best Flea + Tick Yard & Kennel Spray, a natural formula that kills fleas, flea eggs and ticks and is safe for the grass.

Stay Vigilant

Once you’ve successfully started flea prevention for cats and dogs, or won the battle against looming flea infestations, you still need to keep checking for evidence of dog tick bites, fleas on cats and dogs, ticks on cats. Here are some of the signs:

Fleas: Beware of extra scratching and biting of the skin, irritated skin and bald spots. Look for rice-shaped tapeworms near the tail end of your pet and flea dirt in the fur.

How to find them: Run a flea comb through your pet’s hair or thoroughly examine the skin by parting the hair. These fur outlaws will do anything to flee the scene, so you might not ever see the actual culprit—only the flea dirt they leave behind after they’re long gone.

Ticks: Be on the lookout for scabs, head shaking, loss of appetite, shivering, fatigue, not wanting to move around and swollen joints, lumps and red skin, especially around the ears, shoulders, armpits, face and paws.

How to find them: Check thoroughly for visible ticks on dogs and cats. Do this every time your pets come in from outside. You should also be looking for scabs and bumps that could be evidence of cat or dog tick bites. A tick’s favorite spots are in the ears and armpits, around the face and chin, and in between toes. Proper dog tick removal is done by using tweezers to grab the entire body of the tick and pull it straight out, and make sure you’ve gotten it all. Apply an antiseptic to the area afterward.

Well, that’s the rundown on everything you need to know about flea prevention for dogs and cats, ticks on cats, dog tick bites and the life of a parasite. So hopefully, you’re now a true believer in constant checks for these pesky pests and in keeping your pets protected with year-round treatments. Because no one wants to deal with the lengthy, and pretty exhausting and unpleasant, eviction process.