Fleas and Ticks

Nov 14, 2018   Tracey Aston   Health & Wellness

Most pet parents see fleas and ticks as an irritating nuisance; however, they are much more and are linked to several health concerns that could affect your pets.  Almost everyone has heard of Lyme disease and its association with deer ticks but that is only the tip of a very dangerous iceberg.

Fleas are the most common type of external parasite to infest our pets. Fleas are very tiny, about the size of a pen or pencil tip, and can be easily overlooked until it's an infestation. Fleas will hide in any area of your pet, including stomach, base of tail, armpits, inside of your pet's ears, paw pads and even toenails. If you are visually noticing fleas on your pet, know there are many more you can't see. The first sign of fleas on your pet is flea excrement, which will look like your pet has dirty skin. If your pet is playing outside or around dirt, the dirt will most likely stay on your pet's coat. Flea dirt is under the coat, on your pet's skin.

The most common health concern of a flea infestation is infection. Fleas reproduce quickly and abundantly, therefore, a single flea can easily cause an infestation. Fleas or flea secretions can cause an allergic reaction to your pets just by being on them, even without biting them. Signs of an allergic reaction are itching, scratching, and hives.  Pets experiencing fleas will show signs of unrelenting scratching and biting, and in doing so, could open a wound. Our pets' paws and mouth are rife with bacteria and opening a wound with a dirty paw or mouth is the fast track to a potentially nasty skin infection.  Signs of a skin infection could be hair loss, redness, bumps, crusty looking skin and pus or discharge. 

Tapeworms, Heart Murmurs, Anemia and Bartonella, aka cat scratch fever, can be caused by fleas. Swallowing an infected flea while licking or chewing the affected area, your pet may develop a tapeworm.  Fleas feed off your pet by sucking their blood, and an untreated flea infection could cause your dog to become anemic from blood loss and even lead to heart murmur. A Bartonella infection can cause fever, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures and swelling of the lymph nodes and is spread by a flea infected with the parasite biting your pet.

If a flea infestation does occur, acting quickly and swiftly is a vital to stopping the spread of these rapidly reproducing parasites. Fleas will infest carpets, throw rugs, bedding, cars and clothing. Fleas aren't just preferential to animals, and they will jump on and bite humans too. The best way to get rid of fleas is to treat everything with Borax, which is safe for both humans and pets. Borax will not only kill the living fleas, but dry up any flea eggs. Start by sprinkling Borax on all carpeting, getting as close to the baseboards as possible, and then thoroughly vacuum the area. You may need to do this several times a week at in the beginning until the infestation is resolved.

Ticks are small, brown or black, non-flying insects that survive by feeding on the blood of mammals. An engorged tick, meaning one that has recently eaten, may appear light brown, grey or even light tan.  Owners may be unaware a tick as attached to their pet because they don't recognize the color change.  Ticks have been confused with harmless skin tags and vice versa. They can be similar in appearance, but always look for signs of movement, rapid growth or little black legs when finding something new on your pet.  If you are unsure if it is a tick or a skin tag, visit your veterinarian to make sure. An untreated tick, living off your pet could cause serious illness and paralysis. In the comparison pictures below, notice in the first picture, black legs can easily still be seen on an attached tick.

If you do notice a tick on your pet, the easiest way to remove it is with a tick key or tick twist. Tick keys and tick twists can be easily found online or your local pet store. To use a tick key, place the key over the entire body of the tick in the large part of the tear shaped slot of the key. Slide the key along the skin, pulling the key away from the tick until it is removed. Immediately dispose of the tick by putting it into rubbing alcohol, a sealed baggy or flushing it down the toilet.  Make sure to clean the area with rubbing alcohol after removal and apply Neosporin to the area. Continually check the area for signs of an allergic reaction or infection like redness, irritation, itching, hives and bleeding.

The most often heard about tick-borne illness is of course Lyme Disease. While all tick bites are serious, it should be noted that not all ticks carry Lyme and a bite is not a certain diagnosis. It can take 6-8 weeks after a bite before your pet will even test positive for Lyme Disease and possibly 2-5 months before any symptoms can occur.  It should be noted, if your pet has received the Lyme vaccine they will always test positive for Lyme Disease because of the vaccination. In Dr. Jean Dodd's article, Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases in Dogs she states “Choosing the Lyme Vaccine for your pet needs to be weighed heavily. First, you should consider the documented case risk for Lyme disease in your area. Second, you need to assess the exposure risk imposed by your lifestyle. Even in high-exposure risk areas, I would lean to not automatically vaccinating for Lyme disease, because preventative and treatment measures are easily available and reliable.”  “Also, even Lyme vaccinated dogs can develop disease as efficacy of the product is only about 60 to 70 % in preventing disease. Thus, antibiotic therapy should be used in vaccinated dogs that are developing Lyme disease symptoms, just as it is used to treat in non-vaccinated Lyme-diseased dogs.”  Symptoms of Lyme's Disease are lameness and sore joints, fever, lethargy and enlarged lymph nodes. If symptoms do occur after a bite, seek veterinary treatment as dog's respond well to treatment with an antibiotic, normally Doxycycline.

I'm sure as a pet parent you've been warned about the dangers of ticks but Lyme isn't even close to the only tick borne illness you should know about. Ehrlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted-Fever and Babesiosis are also associated with various ticks indigenous to our local area.  These are very serious disease with symptoms ranging from fever, loss of appetite to joint pain, lethargy and in extreme causes, pale gums, nose bleeds, seizures and even death.

The most obvious way to protect your pet is prevention and with the prevalence of fleas and ticks, this is a constant battle.  While veterinarians will most likely push a topical or oral treatment, there are many natural preventatives that don't carry the risk of chemicals.  Topical treatments can cause skin irritation, allergic reactions and chemical burns. Oral preventives come with even stronger warnings, according to the NBC News article Flea, tick pills can cause nerve reactions in pets, FDA warns  “Pills or chews that protect dogs and cats against fleas can cause neurological problems such as stumbling or seizures, and pet owners need more warning, the Food and Drug Administration said.” Work with your veterinarian and weigh all your options before deciding on a topical or oral flea and tick prevention.

Some natural preventatives to traditional topical and oral prevention are: 
  • Due to the lauric acid, coconut oil kills and repels fleas when applied to the coat and as an added bonus coconut oil also moisturizes your pet's skin. 
  • Another common ingredient found in most kitchens is apple cider vinegar. Apple cider vinegar can be added to your pet's drinking water or can be diluted in water in a 1:1 mixture and applied directly to your pet's coat.
  • A few drops cedarwood oil diluted in water can be applied to the pet's coat. Check manufacture for the dilution ratio. 
  • Very small amounts of garlic can also be added to your pet's diet as flea prevention. The amount of garlic added goes by your pet's weight, too much can cause liver and kidney failure and some health issues can be exasperated by garlic, so before using this method, be sure to talk to your vet to see if garlic can be safely added to your pet's diet. 
As you can see, these blood-sucking pests aren't just a nuisance but can be downright scary. We don't want our pets to miss out on exercise, fresh air and all the joys of the outside, but a little diligence will go a long way in preventing issues for you, your pet and your home. 

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