Image: Dog Getting Flea Medication
Every day in the exam room, I discuss parasites with my clients. Every client, every patient, because no pet lives in a bubble, totally separated from the outside world. Even indoor pets on the 8th floor of a high-rise are at risk. Fleas and ticks, although the most “visible,” are often not seen by pet parents and, as a result, this increases risk for their pets and even the pet’s human family. So let’s take a look at these ugly little buggers.
What We Know About Fleas
Fleas like warmth and humidity: around 70°F and 70% humidity are ideal. So if the temperature drops, they often make it into houses where the central heat is on by hitchhiking on pets and on people’s clothing. Once inside, they can become a year-round issue and a potential household infestation. After they jump onto a host and take a blood meal, fleas become obligate ectoparasites (“obligate” means they don’t tend to jump from pet to pet [they have their free meal, so why move?], and “ectoparasite” means they live on the outside of the host). The adult female then starts laying eggs. The eggs behave somewhat like little ping-pong balls and fall off the pet, typically where she rests or sleeps (including your bed, if Fluffy sleeps with you!).
Here’s what the rest of the flea life cycle looks like:
- An egg hatches into a maggot-like larva.
- The larva feeds in the environment, molts a few times, then spins a cocoon and becomes a pupa.
- The pupa hatches as an adult flea.
- The adult flea then looks for a host.
The pupal stage is the hardest stage to kill and is the reason fleas live through the winter so easily. Fortunately, with the help of your veterinarian, a flea infestation can be conquered. Your veterinarian can recommend a parasite control product that will break the flea life cycle.
What We Know About Ticks
Ticks, on the other hand, spend less than 10% of their entire life on the host, and the ticks in North America have a 3-host life cycle, which means that 3 of the tick life stages feed on a host. Each female tick lays up to 18,000 (yes, thousand) eggs in the environment.
Here’s what the tick life cycle looks like:
- An egg hatches, and a larva emerges.
- The larva quests for (seeks) a host, feeds, drops off into the environment, and molts into a nymph.
- The nymph quests for a host, feeds, drops off, and then eventually molts into an adult.
- The adult quests for a host, feeds, and is ready to drop off. Then the female lays up to 18,000 eggs.
For some tick species, this life cycle can last longer than 3 years!
As you can see, most of the tick’s life is spent in the environment and on different hosts — mammals (including cats, coyotes, deer, dogs, mice, opossums, raccoons, rats, and squirrels), birds, and amphibians. That’s why there is no easy way to break their life cycle, like there is with the flea. Adding to that, although ticks do not feed 365 days of the year, ticks feed 12 months of the year. Even when there is snow on the ground, if the temperature rises to 40°F, ticks are seeking a host!
This makes ticks a year-round problem and a threat to not only our pets but our families as well. Ticks can transmit diseases, such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis, and anaplasmosis, to cats, dogs, and humans. And although most people associate ticks with the outdoors, one species — the brown dog tick — actually prefers to live indoors and has been known to cause infestations in houses! (Think 18,000 eggs hatching. This is the stuff of Hollywood horror movies!)
How We Help Protect Your Pet Against Fleas and Ticks
There are many good products available now to help protect your pet against fleas and ticks. But some are categorized as drugs (so they’re approved by the FDA), some are considered insecticides (so they’re approved by the EPA), some are over the counter, some are by prescription only, some are for dogs only, some for cats only, and some should be used with caution around children … deciding on the right product for your pet can be quite confusing!
Let’s clear up the confusion. Most pets should be on a flea and tick control product year-round. All year round. Your veterinarian knows and understands the products, which are the safest, the most cost-effective, the proper application/administration, and whether there could be interactions with any other medications your pet is taking. We rely on you to make sure we understand your pet’s and family’s lifestyle so we can help you select a product that will work best for you. If you have an infestation, we can guide you through how to eliminate it. And if your pet has contracted a flea- or tick borne disease, we know how best to treat her.
Cooperation and communication between you and your veterinarian are vital for choosing the optimal parasite control regimen for your pet. Consult with your pet’s veterinarian. This is what we do — and do well. Don’t try to go it alone!
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of HealthyPet magazine.
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