Flea 101 – Dogster
The most famous of all canine pests is the flea. Fleas are tiny insects that live on the blood of mammal hosts. The dog flea and the cat flea are the two most commonly seen on dogs, with the cat flea being much more prevalent.
Fleas cause harm to dogs in a number of ways:
- Their bites often cause a strong reaction on the dog’s skin, resulting in irritation and itching.
- Fleas can spread diseases like tapeworm, typhus and even the plague. Transmission occurs by either their bite or by being ingested.
- Fleas can cause anemia, in severe cases, especially in very young, old or unhealthy dogs.
Fleas like warm, moist weather, so they are most abundant in climates where they can breed year-round, such as parts of the southern United States. Harsh winters don’t kill them off though. Their breeding slows down in freezing weather, but once the temperature warms up in the spring, they begin reproducing with vigor.
“All stages of fleas can survive long periods of time without food, and some species of adult fleas can even survive freezing temperatures,” says Dr. Heidi Watkins, with Wagly Animal Hospital in California. “These abilities allow any stage of fleas to survive indoors in deep carpet or crevices, and outdoors in deep leaf litter or other organic material. Adult fleas can live on pets, feral animals and wildlife all winter long.”
How to repel fleas on dogs
The most effective way to control fleas is to prevent them from living and reproducing on your dog. There are two different types: topical and oral. Consult your veterinarian to determine the best preventive to use for your dog.
Topical flea repellents are ones you apply to your pet’s fur regularly (like a spray, shampoo or collar) to discourage fleas from landing and staying on your pet’s fur. You can opt for a once-a-month application of a medication that is absorbed by your dog’s skin and kills fleas on contact. These are available by prescription from veterinarians or over the counter at pet supply retailers.
Or, your veterinarian may recommend a once-a-month oral medication that kills fleas that land on your dog and prevents them from reproducing. They come in chews or pills.
Because fleas use your dog’s environment for part of their life cycle, treat these areas as well. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the following actions can help control fleas in your home:
- Vacuum carpets, cushioned furniture, and floor cracks and crevices daily.
- Steam clean your carpets.
- Wash all bedding in hot, soapy water every two to three weeks.
- Use a flea comb to remove adult fleas from your dog. Deposit the fleas in hot, soapy water to kill them.
- Keep your dog indoors as much as possible to reduce chances of flea bites.
No one likes finding a tick on a dog. The blood-sucking insects latch onto the dog’s skin with their mouthparts and can be difficult to remove.
Ticks can be found in a number of species, but the ones most likely to latch onto your dog are the brown dog tick and the American dog tick. (For more information on common ticks, go to the Companion Animal Parasite Council tick list here.) According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), ticks can spread a number of diseases, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease and ehrlichiosis. Tick bites are most common in the Northeastern United States in the mid-summer months.
Ticks find their way onto dogs by clinging to plants and grass, where they wait for a potential host to brush up against them. Once they make contact with a dog, the crawl into the dog’s fur and latch onto the skin. They consume the dog’s blood until they drop off to molt or lay eggs, depending on where the tick is in its life cycle. Ticks prefer warm, moist weather and are most prevalent in the summer, although they are found in every part of the United States year-round.
How to control ticks on dogs
Tick prevention means stopping ticks before they latch onto your dog. Topical dog tick repellent is a first line of defense. It can be applied in spray or shampoo form. These products can be made from chemicals that deter ticks, or natural ingredients the repel them. Monthly spot-on treatments and oral medications are also effective. These can be prescribed by your veterinarian. Again, consult your veterinarian to know which preventive is best for your dog.
“Later generation synthetic flea and tick medications have had the best success with killing adult fleas and ticks, preventing reproduction, and ensuring the best environmental decontamination,” says Dr. Watkins.
For dog owners who prefer natural products, options are available in topical products, according to Dr. Watkins.
“Most topical products applied on the dog’s fur use a combination of essential oils,” she says. “Getting rid of ticks in the environment can be done with diatomaceous earth or borax powder.”
She adds that natural products may not have the same efficiency as some of the synthetic medications that are available directly from veterinarians, and that some of these natural products should be used with caution in cats, as their labels indicate.
Even if your dog receives regular tick prevention, check him periodically for ticks. You can find ticks burrowing:
- in and around the ears
- around the tail
- near the eyelids
- between the toes
- between the front legs
- between the back legs
- under the collar
If you find a tick, use tweezers to remove it by grasping it as close as you can to where it has attached itself to the dog’s skin. Pull straight backward, do not twist. Once you remove it, drop it in a glass of rubbing alcohol to kill it.
A pest that bothers humans, dogs, cats, and other animals is the mosquito. Mosquitos are flying insects, and the females feed on the blood of mammals, amphibians, reptiles and others. They are notorious for carrying diseases that can affect both humans and animals. Their biggest threat to dogs is their ability to spread heartworm, a potentially fatal illness that can damage a dog’s major organs as the heartworm goes through its life cycle in the dog’s body.
“Once heartworm larval reach the L4 stage, they migrate from the subcutaneous tissue through deeper tissue, including muscle on their way to the chest,” says Dr. Watkins. “At the L5 stage, they enter the venous circulation and can enter the heart. Microfilaria can also sometimes reach unintended locations in the body including eyes and neuronal tissue. Their primary target is the vasculature of the lungs and heart.”
If untreated, heartworm can eventually kill a dog. Sometimes even treatment can’t help if the damage is too great. This is why it is crucial to protect your dog from this mosquito-borne parasite.
Mosquitos live and reproduce in permanent water bodies that are rich in plant life, riparian woodlands, swampy lowland forests, ponds, ditches, tree holes, and artificial containers where water gathers, like tires, birdbaths, rain barrels and gutters. In the United States, the Southeast has the greatest prevalence of mosquitoes, although they are found everywhere, even in the driest deserts. In areas where climate change has caused greater rainfall over the past several decades, mosquitoes have become even more of an issue.
According to the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC), a leading source of information on parasitic diseases that threaten the health of pets and people, the risk of heartworm infection in dogs is highest in:
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
While heartworm is found in every state in the United States, these states have the highest incidents.
To protect your dog from contracting heartworm through the bite of an infected mosquito, put him on a monthly heartworm preventive. Your veterinarian will prescribe this medication, which may also work to keep fleas and ticks at bay, depending on the product.
You can also do a lot to keep mosquitoes from reproducing near your home. Take these precautions on your property, according to the EPA:
- Eliminate standing waterin rain gutters, old tires, buckets, plastic covers, toys or any other container where mosquitoes can breed.
- Empty and change the water in birdbaths, fountains, wading pools, rain barrels and potted plant trays at least once a week to destroy potential mosquito habitats.
- Drain or fill temporary pools of water with dirt.
- Keep swimming pool water treated and circulating.
Parasites like fleas, ticks and mosquitos have evolved over the centuries to feed on our dogs, and diseases like spotted fever and heartworm have acclimated to use these parasites as vectors. By providing consistent prevention, you make great strides in keeping your dog safe from these bloodsuckers. Talk to you veterinarian to work out the best prevention plan for your dog.