Fleas and ticks aren’t just unpleasant. They can be dangerous to your health and your pets’ health as well. Fleas can carry a large array of pathogens that include tapeworms, typhus and cat scratch disease (CSD). Ticks can transmit Lyme disease and other illnesses. Failing to combat these pests can put your pet’s life at risk, but an integrated approach to pest management can save the two- and four-legged members of your family from discomfort and illness.
Diseases Transmitted by Fleas
In most cases, fleas simply leave irritating bite marks on both humans and pets. The irritation is not due to the bite itself, but to the flea’s saliva. These marks usually go away in a few days without any intervention. But scratching the bitten area can cause infections that in the worst cases can only be resolved through topical, oral, or possibly even IV antibiotics.
Excessive scratching can leave bald patches in animals’ fur. These patches usually go away over time, but they can sometimes be permanent.
In addition to skin infections, some other, more serious communicable diseases can be transmitted through flea bites. One of these is murine typhus, a bacteria found in flea feces. Since fleas often defecate at the same time they bite, a flea can easily introduce this pathogen through the perforated skin. Typhus can be treated with antibiotics if it is caught quickly, but its symptoms include fever, headache, nausea and body aches.
Other flea-borne pathogens take root when infected fleas are swallowed. This happens often when pets consume the fleas that they find on their bodies. While it is rare for adults to consume these insects, small children may wind up ingesting them. In this way, fleas infected with tapeworms and other parasites may transmit them to your pets or small children. Cat Scratch Disease, or Bartonellosis, is passed to grooming cats when they ingest flea feces left in their fur. This disease, which can be transmitted to humans, causes fever, swollen lymph glands, and body aches.
Diseases Transmitted by Ticks
The most well-known tick-borne disease is Lyme disease. Carried by deer ticks, it can infect both you and your pets. Signs of Lyme disease in pets can include fever, lameness, swollen joints or lymph nodes, and a reduced appetite. It is diagnosed through blood tests and can be treated with oral antibiotics.
Other diseases that ticks can carry include Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tick paralysis, and ehrlichiosis (a flu-like illness). All of these can affect both humans and pets.
Other Pests That Can Harm Your Pets
While fleas and ticks are the most common pests that attack your pets, others may affect them depending on the region where you live.
In some parts of the United States, bloodsucking insects known as kissing bugs can transmit Chagas disease (a parasitic infection that can lead to debilitating chronic problems) to pets.
Botflies do not typically infect humans in the U.S., but they have been found to infect dogs seasonally. Often found in tall grass, botfly maggots can burrow into a dog’s skin, causing extreme discomfort.
Finally, in all parts of the U.S., the common mosquito can transmit one of the most destructive canine diseases—heartworm. If you’re a dog owner, be sure to keep your dog on medication to prevent this killer parasite.
How to Keep Fleas Away from Your Home
The first line of defense in keeping these pests off your pet is to keep them out of your home. If you have a grassy yard, keep the lawn mowed and shrubbery trimmed. This discourages fleas from coming into your yard, since they’ll have fewer places to hide.
Don’t encourage wild animals to enter or linger in your yard. While it can be entertaining to watch wild animals eat food you leave out for them, it can be harmful to the health of your pets. Fleas will hitch rides on animals like feral cats, raccoons or possums, enter your yard, and then lie in wait for prowling or playing cats and dogs.
Inside the house, provide as few places for fleas to hide as possible. Fleas that do make their way into human residences enjoy areas like throw rugs and carpet. They may also hide behind furniture and in corners. By vacuuming frequently and covering sections of rooms that are not high-traffic areas, you can remove the eggs, larvae and pupae that would otherwise develop into biting adult fleas.
If your animals go outside, give them a quick brushing when they come back in. This can dislodge any pests in their fur. By stopping them at the door, you can avoid populations developing inside; once a population takes hold, it can take weeks or months to get them out.
At dog parks, your pet may encounter other dogs who may be carrying fleas. Rather than preventing your dog from frolicking with others, make sure that your pet’s flea repellent medications are up to date and effective. This, plus checking him or her for fleas when you come home, can keep your animals and your home flea-free.
What If You Already Have Fleas in the House?
If fleas show up, thoroughly vacuum the home and throw the vacuum bag away. Then shampoo or steam clean your carpets to kill any that may have stayed behind.
You may wish to treat the home with insecticides after the initial cleaning. By thoroughly cleaning the carpets first, you can make sure that most fleas have been already removed and have no place to hide.
If you prefer to avoid chemical insecticides, try making a flea trap. Fill a shallow pan, such as a baking dish, with water. Add a small amount of dish soap. Then, in the evening, shine a light over the pan in a dark room. Fleas will be attracted to the light, jump at it, and then drown in the water below. This water should be changed daily and kept away from pets.
Fleas already on your pet can be removed through brushing. Flea brushes have small, closely spaced teeth that capture the insects when the brush goes by them. Remove the fleas from the brush either under running water or by cleaning the brush in a bowl of soapy water.
Keeping Ticks Away
Ticks hide in bushy areas, then hitch a ride on your clothing or on your pet’s fur. They will then burrow into your pet’s flesh and embed themselves, making them difficult to remove.
Trimming brush and bushes back in your yard can dissuade ticks from living there. When you and your pet are out, prevent them from running into any wooded areas where ticks may hide.
Do a quick tick check when you come back in. Wear long sleeves and pants to keep any ticks away from you. Change when you come home to prevent ticks from transferring from your clothes to your or your pet’s skin.
How to Find and Remove Ticks on Your Cat or Dog
Ticks can be detected by scanning your pet for them. Rub your hands through their fur and over their skin and feel for a bump or a swollen area.
The insects themselves may be brown, black, or tan with eight small legs. While some ticks are about the size of a Tic Tac, others are even smaller, and may be no bigger than the head of a pin.
If you encounter a tick already on your animal, safely remove it. Some people recommend painting the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly; these tend to be ineffective measures. Instead, grasp the tick with tweezers as close to your pet’s skin as you can. Pull it out with a straight, slow and steady motion. Twisting or jerking can result in the tick’s head breaking off under your pet’s skin. This can lead to infection if it is not properly removed.
After removal, drop the tick into a small jar of rubbing alcohol. Note on the bottle the date that you removed the tick. If your pet starts showing any signs of a tick-borne illness, your veterinarian will want to test the tick to see if it transmitted a disease to your pet.
You should also use antiseptic to clean the area around the bite, then wash your hands and the tools used to remove the tick. This can prevent infection of the wound and transmission of any pathogens.
Topical Treatments for Your Pets
Flea and tick collars only repel insects from the head and neck, but topical medications like Frontline and Advantage can be applied to your pets once a month to repel ticks and fleas over their entire bodies. Make sure that you observe instructions for application; these medications require different doses by weight. You should also abstain from using these on puppies and kittens under six weeks old.
Flea or tick repellent shampoo is another option. These products can help remove fleas from animals and repel them in the future. The active ingredients in these shampoos only last for around two weeks, however, making this a labor-intensive option for flea and tick control.
Modern flea and tick medications make it easier than ever to keep these pests away from your pets. Use them in combination with strategies for making your home and yard less attractive to fleas, ticks and other pests. Through careful attention and consistent care, you can keep these pests away from your animals and keep every member of your family healthy and comfortable.