Keep ticks and fleas off your pets and out of your home
Ticks and fleas are external parasites that crawl onto your cat or dog, make themselves comfortable within your pet’s fur coat and bite into their skin. It is from here that they take a parasitic meal of your pet’s blood, breed, lay eggs that hatch and continue the cycle of multiplying and feeding. (The flea’s lifecycle is a bit more complicated, but essentially the same parasitic relationship with your pets is required.)
Ticks and fleas can harm your pets’ health, so in this article we’ll look at how these parasites end up on your pets, how they affect your pets, how you can remove them and how to prevent ticks and fleas from getting onto your pets in the first place.
What do ticks and fleas do to pets?
Ticks and fleas are blood-sucking external parasites that are constantly on the hunt for their next meal. Our pet dogs and cats offer the perfect buffet on legs because these warm-blooded mammals of ours spend time outdoors where they pick up ticks and fleas that have been waiting in grass and on other animals. Your pet brushes past these parasites that then hitch a ride to the warm and cosy indoors. It’s here that they nestle into your pets’ protective fur coat to enjoy a blood meal (by biting into your pet’s skin) and begin to reproduce. Why are ticks and fleas so bad for pets? They can expose dogs and cats to:
Flea bite dermatitis
Some cats and dogs are very allergic to flea saliva, so the moment just one flea bites their skin, they can have a severe allergic reaction. Their skin becomes inflamed and itchy and they can scratch relentlessly, trying to ease that itch while potentially injuring themselves and causing secondary infection. Flea bite dermatitis needs medical treatment as well as prevention of flea bites in future.
Fleas are the intermediate host for tapeworms. Flea larvae consume tapeworm eggs and develop into adult fleas that bite and feed off your pet. As your pet is grooming themselves, they can swallow an adult flea, and it’s during the process of digesting the flea that the tapeworm egg enters the pet’s digestive tract. When the tapeworm egg hatches, the tapeworm anchors itself into the intestinal wall with its hooked mouthparts and feeds on your pet from the inside. Tapeworms do not usually cause great harm to healthy dogs and cats, and they can be eradicated with regular deworming. Eliminating fleas from your pets’ environment will reduce your pets’ exposure to tapeworms altogether.
Ticks and fleas drink pets’ blood, and a lot of it too. Both ticks and fleas can affect pets’ red blood count – lowering it to the point of causing anaemia. Pets with heavy infestations of ticks and/or fleas will have pale gums and appear lethargic, and must be taken to the vet immediately.
Ticks can cause tick disease
When ticks bite pets, they don’t only feed on their blood, but can also transmit tick-borne diseases. Dogs are especially susceptible to tick diseases like biliary and canine ehrlichiosis, which can cause symptoms like:
- appetite loss
- weight loss
- joint pain
- swollen lymph glands
- secondary infection from scratched skin
- lethargy and depression
If your pet has a jaundiced appearance, it’s likely their liver has been affected by biliary (tick bite fever) and they need rapid veterinary attention. If tick diseases are not treated quickly, they can be fatal.
Signs that your pet may have a tick or flea infestation
The first sign that your pet may have a tick or flea infestation is the visible presence of the parasites. Engorged ticks are easy to spot in short-haired pets and easy to feel when you stroke long-haired pets. Fleas leave behind flea dirt, which is the excreted dried blood of their meals. And sometimes, if you’re quick enough, you’ll see live fleas when you part your pet’s fur.
When adult ticks have eaten their fill, they drop off your pet and can be seen on the ground. Flea infestations can also occur in your home environment, such as on or around your pets’ beds and in carpets. It’s very important to regularly vacuum, clean and disinfect pet areas to prevent parasite infestations.
How to remove ticks from your pets
Having observed or found ticks on your pet, you may want to remove them immediately to prevent any transfer of tick-borne diseases. There is lots of conflicting advice out there about how to remove a tick – everything from pouring oil on the tick to drown it and force it to let go, to pouring on apple cider vinegar or rubbing alcohol to make the tick dislodge itself. Do not attempt any of those methods, as they may cause the tick to discharge bacteria into your pet’s bloodstream. Rather, try one of these:
This method of tick removal involves simply placing your finger on top of the tick and making little circles with your finger, twirling the tick around in a single direction until it lets go. This is most effective on a tick that’s already engorged because it will eventually be too ‘annoyed’ to hold on any more and let go. If you’re squeamish about this method, put a latex glove on or wrap your hand in a plastic bag before attempting to ‘whirl’ the tick.
This is the simplest and easiest method of tick removal – it requires sharp-pointed tweezers, a good grip and a quick hand. Find the tick on your dog, grip the tick’s head as close to your dog’s skin as possible (its mouth will likely be buried in your dog’s skin), and pull up with a steady pressure – not too tightly so as to squash the tick, but tightly enough to pull it out.
For-purpose tick picker
A handy tick-removal tool is a tick picker, which you can purchase from the vet shop. It has a narrowed wire loop that goes over the tick and can be drawn back to take hold of the tick and pull it out.
Whichever tick removal method you use, always have a container of rubbing alcohol in which to drown the tick/s, or dispose of it in some other way. Don’t put a live tick back into the environment. After removing the tick, disinfect the tick bite on your pet’s skin to prevent infection from other sources of bacteria.
How to keep ticks and fleas off of dogs and cats
The best way to keep ticks and fleas off of dogs and cats is with a regularly applied tick and flea medication. This is a good preventative approach, as it’s much easier and cheaper to repel ticks and fleas than to treat the illnesses that they may cause.
There are plenty of preventative options to choose from, such as:
- tablets and capsules
- tick and flea collars
- spot-on treatment
- ultrasonic tick repelling collar
- tick and flea shampoo
Choose the one that best suits your pet’s lifestyle and environment. Where you have a blended pet household, cats should never be exposed to tick and flea medication for dogs, as it is toxic to them. If possible, treat your dog for ticks and fleas with a chew, and treat your cat with a collar or a spot-on treatment. Indoor dogs can do well with any of the tick and flea repellent solutions, but if your dog is an enthusiastic swimmer, you may have to apply a spot-on more regularly than intended. In this case, the better solution would be a tablet, capsule, chew or ultrasonic collar (just remember to remove the collar before he swims!).
In the case of internal medications like tablets and chews, check the packaging to see how frequently the medication needs to be taken, to ensure your dog is covered all year ‘round.
Another proactive way to keep ticks and fleas off your pets is to regularly groom your dogs and cats and use that time to feel your dog’s skin and fur to detect the presence of these critters. Even if you take your dog for a walk on the pavement, there may be stray animals in the area that have deposited their ectoparasites nearby. Ticks and fleas just need a passing opportunity to climb onto your pet’s fur coat – it’s enough to introduce these critters to your home. Always check your pets before going inside again after spending time outdoors.
Can ticks and fleas from pets bite humans?
Yes. A great reason to preventatively treat your pets for ticks and fleas is that it’s beneficial to your and your family’s health as well. Ticks frequently bite people and feed for a few days before they are either removed or fall off. A tick bite doesn’t hurt, but the bite area can become red and develop a rash, which is a sign of the presence of bacteria or disease. People can develop tick bite fever (with flu-like symptoms) approximately 10 days after a tick bite. If you find a tick or a tick bite mark on your skin, keep track of the days that pass and go to the doctor if you experience flu-like symptoms after a few days.
People can also get flea bites when there is an infestation of fleas on and around their pets. Flea bites mostly occur around the feet and ankles, and can become very itchy. Scratching is often the cause of secondary infection at the site of flea bites. Deep-cleaning and parasite control is required to get rid of a flea infestation in your home, especially if you have carpeted or wooden floors, which provide plenty of dark spaces in which flea eggs and larvae can fall and hide.
Can I pause tick and flea treatment in winter?
Ticks and fleas are still active in our temperate South African winters. They may not be as energetic as they are in warmer weather, but they are still around and opportunistically looking for a host to dine on. South African pets should be preventatively treated for ticks and fleas all year ‘round, and remember to regularly wash pet bedding, blankets and plush toys.