Ticks are small spider-like acarids and fleas are insects, but these two tiny creatures have at least one thing in common – they are both parasites that feed on your dog’s blood and can cause a lot of discomfort and more serious health problems.
Flea bites may go unnoticed on some pets, cause slight irritation in others and produce extensive itching, red lesions, hair loss and even ulcers in those animals with flea allergy dermatitis, which is the result of extreme sensitivity to flea saliva. Severe flea infestations can cause anaemia, especially in puppies. Fleas can transmit several diseases, as well as tapeworm. Ticks are also “vectors” or carriers of a number of diseases.
Adult fleas are wingless insects, generally smaller than a sesame seed, who feed on the blood of animals. Their proportionately enlarged back pair of legs gives them an extraordinary jumping ability. Hanging on to your pet’s fur with their claws, their needle-like mouth parts bite through the skin to suck up blood.
If one flea finds your dog an attractive food source, you can be sure that other fleas will, too. They mate, with females laying 30-50 eggs per day. These eggs will drop to the ground within 8 hours and, as soon as 2 days later, flea larvae will hatch and hide in dark places on the ground, in carpets or upholstery. After about a week of feeding on adult flea droppings, crumbs, flakes of skin, etc., the larvae spin cocoons to become pupae. The pupae can remain in this stage for very long periods of time. The cycle continues when, as soon as a week or so later, the pupae develop into adult fleas and emerge from their cocoons when they sense that a dog or cat, or other animal host, is near. The cycle – which can take as little as 12 days or as long as 180 days – can then begin again.
Ticks are wingless creatures that live exclusively on the blood of animals for three of the four stages of their life cycle. They are equipped with an apparatus called Haller’s organ which senses heat, carbon dioxide and other stimuli to allow the ticks to locate the presence of an animal food source. Once found, they crawl on and embed their mouth parts into the animal’s skin and proceed to suck up its blood.
You should inspect your pet regularly for ticks, especially if they have been outside in areas where there are woods or tall grasses. A thorough combing within 4 to 6 hours of exposure to such environments can help prevent ticks from attaching themselves to feast on your pet. Should you find a tick, it should be removed immediately, as the longer it is attached to its host, the greater the chance for disease to spread. Do not touch the tick with your bare hands. Removal requires considerable care. If in doubt the practice should be able to demonstrate the correct method of removal. Never pull the tick off or attempt to burn or damage the tick- you will almost certainly leave parts of the tick behind which can lead to further problems. Topical tick treatments may kill the tick but in some cases they may sometimes still remain attached. For larger ticks it may be best to physically remove them. Wear gloves and use a purpose designed device such as a tick hook to grip the tick as close to the skin as possible. Careful rotation will persuade the tick to dislodge without leaving its mouth parts behind. To dispose of the tick, wrap it in several tissues and flush it down the toilet.
The best way to control flea problems is to prevent them from happening in the first place. Fortunately, developments in veterinary parasite control in recent years have made the twofold goal of eliminating fleas on pets and preventing further infestations much easier to achieve. Available for both dogs and cats, new insecticides and insect growth regulators in easy-to-use topical or oral forms not only eliminate any existing fleas, but also work long-term to prevent future infestations. This is accomplished either by killing the parasites before they can reproduce or by preventing their eggs from developing into normal adult fleas. Consult your veterinary surgeon for advice about the proper product for your pet. Furthermore, thorough daily vacuuming of high-traffic areas and frequent washing of your pet’s bedding will also go a long way in reducing the flea population in your home.
Some of the same types of topical or oral products used to control flea infestation are also effective against ticks. Such treatments should be combined with daily examinations and tick removal for those pets, especially dogs, who are frequently outdoors in areas with high tick populations. Ask your veterinary surgeon for information about the situation in your locality.
If, despite your best efforts at control, you find that fleas or ticks have crawled (or jumped) on to your pet, you will have to use a product that will kill and/or repel the parasites. These include once-a-month topical treatments, sprays, powders, dips, shampoos, collars and, to combat fleas, oral or inject-able medication. Once again, you should ask your veterinary surgeon for advice about what the most appropriate product for your pet is. And remember, it is perfectly normal to see live fleas or ticks on a pet immediately after a topical treatment, spray, shampoo, collar, etc. is applied. Many believe that this means the product is not working, but the fleas or ticks have to fully absorb the product before they will be affected, which may take from a few hours to a few days.