Fleas and ticks can cause serious diseases that are common in dogs, and exposure to these parasites can be a public health concern. In fact, flea populations have grown significantly as more people own pets. The amount of outdoor and feral cats has also increased, for example, which helps fleas survive outside.
Tick populations have evolved, too, due to a number of factors including climate change, forest destruction and changes in migratory animal patterns. The deer population has grown exponentially over the last 20 years, for example, which has caused a boost in tick population.
So Where do Fleas and Ticks Live? Everywhere.
Fleas are especially insidious. There are 2000 different species found all over the world. A common myth is that fleas do not cause serious problems like ticks, but unfortunately they can. The cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis, is the type that affects our dogs and other pets in almost all cases.
Fleas feed on the blood of a warm-blooded host just like ticks, and this can include humans. So it’s important to keep your pets flea and tick free. The good news? Flea and tick issues are generally completely preventable. Here’s what to know:
Flea and Tick Prevention 101:
Your veterinarian should recommend a type of prevention based on your dog’s age, health history and geographic location. Your dog’s lifestyle is also important to consider. For example, if you take your dog camping and hiking, they may be at higher risk.
Ideally, you’ll use one product that can effectively kill and prevent both fleas and ticks. This is more affordable and decreases the total amount of treatments you’ll need to administer. The following are some options:
Tablets, collars and topical preventatives are well studied and what most veterinarians recommend. Most tablets are chewable and palatable, and depending on the type, they are effective for 30-90 days. Products such as Nexgard, Bravecto and Simparica are commonly prescribed and have been shown to be highly effective and safe. There is a low rate of side effects including gastrointestinal upset, which can occur with giving any type of medication or supplement. Neurologic side effects have been rarely reported, but tablet preventatives should be used cautiously with dogs that have a history of seizures.
Prescription flea and tick collars typically last for at least six months. Seresto is the most commonly prescribed, lasting up to eight months. No significant side effects are reported but some pets may have skin irritation from the collar or scratch excessively at their neck, and cause skin abrasions.
Topical prescription products are another option, and include Advantage, Advantix, and Vectra 3D. Most topicals should not be used on dogs who frequently swim, as the water can remove the products.
Sometimes localized skin irritation at application site can occur. Other side effects are rare, but it’s still wise to use these products cautiously if your dog has a history of seizures.
Interestingly, topical preventions should be avoided for Scottish Terriers, as it has been shown they may increase the likelihood of developing a type of bladder cancer called Transitional Cell Carcinoma
If you prefer natural alternatives, it’s important to note that there is limited data available with regard to the products’ effectiveness. Lemongrass oil is a common ingredient found in non-chemical products, and you may find lavender, too. Most veterinarians do not support the use of natural products as a safe way to prevent fleas and ticks, however, due to the limited studies available. In fact, many natural products contain essential oils which may trigger seizures in dogs, so consult with your veterinarian before using these products just as you would any other.
There is another topical we haven’t yet discussed: Bathing! A good wash does not prevent fleas, though medicated shampoos and even dish soap may be effective at killing fleas on your dog’s skin.
How do You Know If Your Dog Has Fleas and Ticks?
Ticks can sometimes be easy to spot, as they fill with blood. Some flea symptoms are not as easy to see, however. If a dog has fleas, he might scratch at his belly, though not every dog will feel itchy. Often, it’s the dogs who are allergic or sensitive to flea bites who experience skin discomfort.
Dogs with fleas sometimes experience hair loss—usually from the back half of the body. You can also look for small, black spots near the base of the dog’s tail. This is often called “flea dirt,” and is usually specks of your dog’s blood, or the flea’s feces.
Common Diseases Caused by Fleas:
Anemia: The most serious consequence of fleas
Once a flea attaches to a dog’s skin, it starts to suck blood—and unfortunately, blood loss can lead to anemia, which is a low red blood cell count. Anemia can be a life threatening condition, as red blood cells play a critical role in the body delivering oxygen to vital organs.
Fortunately, flea anemia generally only occurs in certain cases: large infestations or in puppies, toy dogs, and those that may already have diseases anemia-causing diseases, such as cancer or immune system issues. It takes a lot of blood loss and a severe infestation to cause anemia. If your pet does become anemic, it is generally treatable with blood transfusions and medications to remove fleas quickly.
Flea-related skin issues: The most common dermal ailment
Fleas can cause flea-allergy dermatitis (FAD), which is when the immune system overreacts and causes inflammation and secondary skin infections. Flea-allergy dermatitis is usually the top reason dogs are seen for itchy skin.
It’s most common in the summer, but can be seen year round. When fleas attach to your dog, they inject saliva under the skin and insert compounds that cause dogs to be itchy pretty quickly. Some extra-sensitive pooches feel itchy within 15 minutes, yet for other dogs it can take a few days.
FAD is so unfortunately common because the canine immune system has a low tolerance to flea saliva exposure.
Note: Secondary skin infections can sometimes occur, which lead to hair loss and damage to the natural skin barrier. Your veterinarian will prescribe oral and/or topical antibiotics based on the extent of the infection. Although many antibiotics used for the skin are relatively safe, it’s important to know they may cause your dog to have gastrointestinal upset, decreased appetite and lethargy. Some antibiotics can have more serious side effects and your veterinarian will be careful in prescribing based on your dog’s general health. The more times antibiotics are administered, the more likely other types of resistant infections can occur in the future.
Tapeworm: The secondary parasite.
Fleas can carry the gastrointestinal parasite, Dipylidium caninum, commonly known as tapeworm. In fact, fleas are the only way tapeworms can infect dogs.
The parasites can cause illness by removing important nutrients from the intestines, leading to weight loss and gastrointestinal issues. Tapeworms can grow up to one foot long within the intestines.
Ticks are can attach to the skin of animals and people, and they’re capable of transmitting a variety of diseases that can be serious and even fatal. Ticks generally need to be attached for 48 hours to transmit disease, so quick removal is important.
What to do if you see a tick on your dog
If possible, visiting your veterinarian for proper tick removal would be ideal, because it can be easy to leave the tick’s head embedded in the dog’s skin.
Tick-borne diseases are diagnosed with a blood test, but the disease may not be evident in the blood immediately. In early stages, most tick-related diseases are treatable. Often the earliest common sign of a tick-borne disease is lethargy due to fever. If you see a tick, the best thing to do is to see your vet.
Lyme Disease: The Most Common Tick-Related ailment
Lyme disease is caused by the Black-Legged tick which is unfortunately active year round. The tick can survive freezing temperatures and is most prevalent in the Northeast, Midwest, Florida, Canada and along the west coast.
First off, if you notice a tell-tale bullseye rash, take your dog to the vet. Other signs of lyme disease may include: lethargy, weight loss, lameness on one or more limbs and swollen lymph nodes.
Unfortunately Lyme disease can be fatal if the infection travels to the kidneys and certain cells that help blood clot appropriately. Luckily, there is a vaccine to prevent Lyme disease and treatment is possible in early stages with antibiotics.
Ehrlichiosis is carried by the American Dog Tick, Lone Star Tick and Brown-Dog Tick, which are found worldwide. Most cases occur in spring and summer. Signs include decreased appetite, lethargy and sometimes bruising or bleeding from the gums or nose due to the destruction of platelets. Ehrlichiosis must be treated in its early stages for a favorable outcome. Unfortunately, late stage treatment carries a poor prognosis.
Anaplasmosis occurs after a bite from the Brown-Legged Tick. Most cases occur in summer but have been reported every month. There are two types: One seen in the Northeast and Midwest, and the other in California and coastal states. The signs and prognosis are similar to Lyme disease.
The American Dog Tick or Rocky Mountain Wood Tick transmits Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. These ticks are found in North, Central and South America. Infection can occur as soon as five hours from when the tick attached. Signs are non-specific and include decreased appetite, abdominal pain, lethargy, and facial swelling. Sadly, the fatality rate has been reported as high as 10%.
In summary, the most effective way recommended by veterinarians to prevent flea- and tick-related diseases is to find an appropriate product for your pet that safely kills and prevents fleas and ticks. Your dog’s health is worth it!
Tell us: What is your favorite flea and tick preventative? Let us know in the comments.
Brooks, Wendy. “Flea Anemia in Cats and Dogs - Veterinary Partner.” Veterinary Information Network, 21 Apr. 2019.
Brooks, Wendy. “Tapeworms (Dipylidium Caninum) in Dogs and Cats - Veterinary Partner.” Veterinary Information Network, Jan. 2019.
“CDC - DPDx - Fleas.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 Dec. 2017.
Dryden, Michael W., et al. “Flea Allergy Dermatitis - Integumentary System.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, Dec. 2014.
“Flea and Tick Control Products for Dogs and Cats - Veterinary Partner.” Veterinary Information Network, 21 Nov. 2019.
Knapp, Deborah. Canine Bladder Cancer. Purdue University, Apr. 2013.