How do dogs get fleas and ticks?

Typically, fleas and ticks come from the environment. Your pet might only go outside for a short time or in a small area, but they still get exposed to where most of these pests reside. Fleas and ticks can then jump onto your pet. Fleas are typically found in damp, cool areas. If it's hot outside, you'll find that most pets go and sit in the shade underneath the tree, and that's where fleas will come on from the environment to their pets. It only takes one. They'll get onto your pet, and that's when things start. The same thing goes for ticks. Ticks will typically sit up in grasses. It doesn't have to be tall grass, as they can be found in low line grasses too. What they do is a fancy term called questing. They'll actually put little fingers out and they will get picked up from there onto your pet and get established. Some of them are very small, so you wouldn't even know that they are there.

Dr. Justin Eckenrode
Carlisle Small Animal Vet Clinic

Can fleas and ticks spread from my dog to my home and family?

Absolutely. Fleas, for example, can latch onto your pet from the environment, take a blood meal, and then lay eggs which fall off into your home. These eggs will then hatch and jump onto your pet again, perpetuating the cycle. Often, we don't find them until the infestation has grown significantly. When it comes to ticks, those are small, and it doesn't have to be large, high grasses. It can be as much as even just a little bit in the backyard. That small tick will come on to the pet. They can be either nymphs, which are baby ticks, or larger ones. They take their blood meal, and off they go. Sometimes they come and go and we don't even know that they've been there.

Can my dog get fleas or ticks even if they're an indoor dog?

Yes. Even primarily indoor dogs are still exposed to the environment when they do go outside. No matter how much we try to prevent it and treat the yard, there is still the possibility of exposure. Something that is very small and rides in underneath the radar can become a much bigger problem if we don't use things to prevent versus trying to treat them.

What health problems do fleas and ticks typically cause?

The biggest issue with fleas is flea allergy dermatitis. It creates an irritation or inflammation on the pet that causes them to chew and scratch. They traumatize the skin, creating what you probably know as hot spots. We have to treat that, but we need to try to get rid of the primary cause, which are the fleas. If we can treat those and prevent the fleas, then we're better off keeping ahead of dermatitis. There are more serious things, typically in my area we don't see much of it, but things like the bubonic plague is spread by fleas. So there are things out there. The other thing that we tend to see a lot with fleas is not so much from the fleas biting, but from the ingestion of fleas. We do know that tapeworms could be spread primarily by ingesting the flea. So the pet that's chewing because of the irritation will ingest the adult flea, and by doing so, they can get tapeworms, which are usually the little rice granules that a lot of people will call in for to say they've seen that in the stool, and then we treat accordingly.

As for ticks, they can transmit diseases such as Lyme disease and others. We all know that the deer tick is probably the primary cause for Lyme disease, and they are very small, poppy seed size. Many people don't even know that they're there. They come on, take their blood meal, and then off they go. We do not see them, but we will find out down the line that there's been exposure. There are other more egregious diseases, such as anaplasma or Ehrlichia in dogs that we test for consistently. I've actually seen an uptick in anaplasma recently within our area, which causes underlying issues for platelets called thrombocytopenia that decrease their clotting ability. That becomes important for when you're performing surgery. We make sure that they're able to clot and heal. Underlying diseases that we don't know about are good to detect early, and that's where testing comes in. That's the 4DX test you may hear of, which is something we use to consistently and yearly look for signs of exposure and try to be proactive versus waiting until there is a problem. Other things that are out there are newer and due to the shift in demographics, such as Babesia, a tick borne disease that affects red blood cells.

What is the difference between over-the-counter and prescription flea and tick medications?

Over-the-counter medications are typically less expensive and widely available. However, they may not be as effective as prescription medications, especially when it comes to collars as opposed to oral and topical medications. Advances in medication have led to improved maintenance and prevention of fleas and ticks.

With dog oral medications specifically, I've seen a great improvement when it comes to flea treatment. With topical medications, we would have to use timing in the past. If the pet has a hotspot, we had to time when the medication was placed on and correlate that with bathing because we didn't want to rinse the product off. The discovery of oral medications has really improved and made a big change in our treatment plan. I can start them on a flea and tick medication as well as treating the skin and improving the symptoms. This is much faster and more efficient in treating pets than it used to be. The ability to get rid of the fleas is much more efficient with oral medications, as it only takes several hours. The treatment and removal of fleas used to be based on breaking the life cycle and trying to prevent adult fleas from reproducing by killing them, but also preventing those eggs from hatching out and moving on. Now, with the oral medications, we can kill the adult fleas much sooner, thereby preventing flea eggs.

The prescription medications tend to be a lot better. As far as ticks go, it's the same thing. A lot of the oral medications now are based on the speed of the kill. The longer ticks are attached, the more likely they are to pass disease, so the sooner we can kill them, the less disease. If we can stay consistent, pets tend to be much safer. I find a bigger improvement with the oral medications than I do with the topicals. That's not to say the topicals don't work because they still do, and something is better than nothing. I recommend topicals for animals that don't tolerate oral medications. I do see better efficacy when it comes to oral medications, but it doesn't mean that topicals don't work. Both medications have pros and cons, but my biggest thing is that owner compliance is important. With topicals, we have to remember to place it on, whereas with the oral medications, we can simply give it and keep on moving, which is great for someone who's very busy.

What different types of flea and tick preventative treatments are there?

Oral medications are typically given monthly, except for one product that is given every twelve weeks. The efficacy is primarily very good across the line. There are some small nuances between them, but a lot of times, compliance is probably your biggest thing. If the medication is given consistently, the efficacy improves. Within several hours of giving the medication, the fleas die and don't have the chance to lay eggs, so we reduce the possibility of a flea infestation.

The same thing goes for ticks. When we give that medication consistently, the tick dies within the first few hours. If it dies, it doesn't get the chance to pass on diseases and your pet therefore has a better quality of life, as less disease is likely to occur. There are several topic medications out there, which are usually administered monthly. Placing it onto the skin, putting the whole product on based on their weight, and being consistent is important. When you administer topical medication, you don't want to touch it but instead let it dry. A lot of the medications dry much faster now. In my opinion, oral medications work better. Topicals have the possibility of running off or rubbing off because it takes a little more time. It is also likely that we miss a dose or two due to a busy schedule. Conversely, we can simply administer oral medication once and move on. Those are discussions worth having with your veterinarian to make sure you choose the appropriate option.

There are also many collar options out there, with some being much longer acting. A lot of people put collars on and leave them on for extended periods of time, causing the efficacy to wear off over time. If you don't stick to a set schedule, there is a good chance that the collar will stop working, so collars are hit or miss.

What will my veterinarian recommend for a flea and tick treatment?

It really depends on your region. For us specifically, I tend to recommend oral medication because of the increased efficacy, convenient use, and what I have seen in the practice. With the appropriate oral medication, we're treating the primary problem. However, our recommendation will depend on the environment that the pet is in, the situation that you're in, and your lifestyle. Sometimes, we make recommendations based on your financial situation. We will discuss all those factors during the appointment to find what works best for you and your lifestyle.

How can I identify fleas on my dog?

Fleas on dogs tend to be most found around the lumbar region or the back end of the pet, so tail base. If you can't find them in that area, another place to look is under the belly where there's less fur. The best way to look for fleas is to take your fingers and run their hair backwards. It will lift up that hair a little bit and allow you to see the skin because that's where fleas reside. They're usually running on the skin below the surface. We'll also look for flea dirt, which is flea poop, that appear as little black specks. The best way to find out if black specks are flea dirt is by combing it onto a paper towel and adding some water to it. If it turns onto a rust color, it is flea dirt because it is essentially just blood.

How can I identify ticks on my dog?

Ticks are typically found on the head, the ears, the shoulders, or neck area, as these are the parts of the body that dogs often expose to the environment.

What should I do if I see fleas or ticks on my dog?

If you're seeing fleas or ticks on your dog, the best advice is to call your vet. Let's get your pet in for a check-up, as the best treatment can vary depending on different factors. There's always a possibility that your dog may have been exposed to fleas or ticks, and we want to continuously prevent that. If we continue to prevent infestations, both pets and their owners have better lifestyles.

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