Fleas and Ticks: More Than Just a Big Irritation

Fleas and ticks are both common skin parasites that feed on the blood of their hosts which are often our pets. In addition to being a major irritation to pets, they can also transmit diseases to both pets and people.

Fleas have hind legs specially adapted for jumping which enables them find a host to feed on. They can leap vertically up to 7 inches and horizontally up to 13 inches, making the flea one of the best jumpers of all known animals – relative to body size. In most fleas, neither the females nor males are fully mature when they first emerge but must feed on blood before they become capable of reproducing. We generally only see the adult stage in our environment leaving 95% of the developing flea’s life unseen. Flea larvae emerge from the eggs to feed on any available organic material such as dead insects, flea feces (digested blood), and vegetable matter. Larvae are blind and avoid sunlight, keeping to dark, humid places such as sand, soil, cracks and crevices, under carpets, and in bedding – theirs or OURS. The larvae molt and undergo metamorphosis into the adult form. This can take as little as four days in good conditions, but may take much longer under adverse conditions. The variable-length stage allows the pre-emergent adult to wait for a suitable opportunity to emerge. Factors triggering emergence include vibrations (animals walking), heat (warm-blooded hosts), and increased levels of carbon dioxide (animal’s breathing), all of which may indicate the presence of a suitable host. As a result, large numbers of fleas may suddenly appear in an otherwise flea-free environment with the introduction of a suitable host.

Once a flea reaches adulthood, its primary goal is to find blood and then to reproduce. Female fleas can lay 5000 or more eggs over their life, resulting in rapid increase in flea numbers. Generally speaking, an adult flea lives for 2 or 3 months. Without a host to provide a blood meal, a flea’s life can be as short as a few days, but under ideal conditions of temperature, food supply, and humidity, adult fleas may live up to a year and a half. Optimum temperature for the flea’s life cycle are 70 to 85 degrees – or the temperature of our houses.

Fleas are principally a nuisance to their hosts, causing an itching sensation which in turn causes the host to try to remove the pest by biting or scratching. However, this itch is not only a source of annoyance. Flea bites can cause a slightly raised, swollen itching spot with a single puncture point at the center. Besides this, the eczematous itchy skin disease of Flea Allergy Dermatitis is common in many host species, including dogs and cats. The bites often appear in clusters or lines of bites and can remain itchy and inflamed for up to several weeks. Fleas can lead to hair loss as a result of frequent scratching and biting by the animal and anemia. In extreme cases the anemia can lead to death. In addition to that, fleas are vectors for viral, bacterial, and rickettsial diseases that infect humans and pets. Fleas are common carriers of tapeworms and protozoa. Important bacterial diseases carried by fleas include typhus and even bubonic plague.

While fleas and ticks have many similarities, we must also consider their differences. Ticks enjoy motion, warm temperatures from body heat, and the carbon dioxide exhaled by mammals, which is why they are attracted to such hosts as dogs, cats, rodents, and rabbits. While both fleas and ticks can spread disease, ticks are by far of greatest concern when considering disease of our pets. The tick bite itself is not usually painful but the parasite can often transmit diseases which is why tick control is so important. Although there is no way of knowing the number of dogs affected by tick bites, tick-borne diseases have become a growing threat to dogs and people. We are seeing an increase in several tick-borne diseases previously uncommon to this area. Therefore, the possibility of a tick bite causing a severe or life-threatening illness warrants being tick smart. Lyme’s disease is the tick-borne disease most people have heard about, but Ehlichiosis, Babesiosis and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever are very important concerns for your pet. However, as long as you use tick prevention regularly, your pets should cruise right through the tick season with no problems.

Ticks have four life stages that occur over their two-year life span. Each stage of a tick’s life requires a blood meal before it can reach the next stage. Adult female’s ticks will feed and engorge, increasing their weight by more than 100-fold then detach to lay 3,000 to 6,000 eggs in secluded areas such as dense vegetation or protected areas in the house. Once the eggs hatch, the ticks are in the larval stage during which time the larvae move into other areas to search for their first host where they feed and then fall back to the ground. The nymph stage begins after the first blood meal is complete. Nymphs remain inactive during winter and start moving again in spring. After a blood meal, the nymphs fall off the host and move in to the adult stage. The adults again find a host, which is usually a rodent, pet, or human. The adult females feed for 8 to 12 days then drop off and remain inactive through the winter and in the spring lays her eggs in a secluded place. If adults cannot find a host animal in the fall, they can survive in a leaf litter or protected place in your house such as inside the walls, until the spring to find a host again.

Ticks and fleas are more than annoying pests. They also spread diseases to people and pets. Controlling infestations of fleas or ticks can be quite difficult since both spend most of their lives off of our pets and hiding away from our sight. To protect our pets, you will need to have a comprehensive attack. You must make sure to treat all pets in the household. One untreated pet can be a source of fleas for all your other pets. There have been amazing improvements in tick and flea control products in the past few years. We now have highly effective oral and topical treatments. But remember, flea infestations, ticks, and tick-borne diseases are on the increase, therefore it is very important to maintain consistent parasite protection with no interruptions in protection

Flea and tick season will be here soon. Pet owners should beware that this year’s crop of fleas and ticks will likely be extremely heavy due to the extended wetness of this winter.

Remember, your family Veterinarian can help guide you through your pet’s health care!