Mythbusters: 4 Things You Only Thought You Knew About Fleas and Ticks

Removing tick from cat
Alamy
Even if you never let your pet outside, he can still get fleas and ticks.

Fleas and ticks have been around for centuries, serving as a source of discomfort and disease. While experts have learned a lot about these pests — including how to manage them in modern times — some common myths and misconceptions about fleas and ticks still exist in the minds of many pet owners, and they can make your parasite problem worse. 

Myth: If you can’t see ‘em, they’re gone

Over the past few decades, new generations of chemicals and drugs have become extremely effective at controlling fleas and ticks. Many vet-approved internally or topically administered products (as well as collars) that impair reproduction, inhibit maturation and/or repel and kill these parasites do work. They may work too well, because we’ve been lulled into a place where we think, “That’ll get ‘em!” And indeed it does get many of them. But we tend to forget about the fleas and ticks we can’t see or reach, and that’s one reason why we sometimes seem to be losing the flea-and-tick wars.

While adult fleas do "live" on the host, their immature stages exist in the environment. In fact, adult fleas living on your pet account for just 5 percent of the total population of fleas in your environment.

Fleas have four stages of development — egg, larva, pupa and adult. Adult fleas feed on pet blood, then mate and the females produce eggs. Larvae emerge from these eggs, eventually developing into pupae. When pupae mature to adult fleas, they jump on the pet and begin to feed — and the cycle starts all over again. (If there is no host handy when fleas hatch, they can go for a good while without feeding. So even if pets and people aren’t home for a few days — or longer — an infestation can quickly occur when they return.)

Ticks also have immature stages. After feeding and mating, adult female ticks drop from their host and lay hundreds to thousands of eggs. These eggs develop into tiny larvae, which molt into nymphs. Nymphs then molt into adult ticks.

Eradicating fleas and ticks at every stage isn’t easy. Even in households where aggressive parasite control is practiced, fleas can re-establish their hold.

Myth: Fleas and ticks are a warm-weather problem

There is a common belief that fleas and ticks are exclusively a seasonal concern: They come out in the warmer weather and die off in the colder seasons. We look forward to those first frosts or snows that seem to send the little pests packing and give us a few months respite before the darn things reappear. Unfortunately, even in cold weather, fleas can survive in many places, including underground in burrows, in sheds and outbuildings, under decks and around foundations — where the temperatures, food supply and overall conditions are sufficient to maintain a population of reproducing fleas. Ticks are also capable of surviving surprisingly cold temperatures.

The reality is these critters possess an incredible ability to survive and when conditions in the environment become more ideal the populations can explode. Cold weather may reduce — but doesn’t eliminate — flea and tick infestations.

Myth: Indoor pets don’t need protection

While there is no doubt that outdoor pets face much greater exposure, it is important to recognize that fleas can and do infest indoor-only animals. Where do these fleas come from? For starters, they hitchhike their way into homes on people’s clothes, other indoor-outdoor pets in the family and unwanted pests like mice and rats. (Unfortunately, for many of us, these rodents do exist in, around and under our homes.) Outdoor animals that sleep around houses or find their way into crawl spaces and basements can potentially introduce fleas into your home.

While fleas and ticks certainly find it difficult to survive in extremely cold or hot and dry environments, remember that people don’t live outdoors. We air condition, humidify and heat our homes so they are comfortable for us — and are perfect microclimates for fleas. And these indoor fleas are just as hungry as the ones in the yard.

Myth: Fleas and ticks are only a problem for pets

Fleas and ticks can make both you and your pet miserable — not to mention downright ill. Fleas can transmit bartonellosis (also called cat scratch disease) to people and can serve as an intermediate host for tapeworms. Ticks can also transmit a number of diseases, including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. So flea and tick control isn’t just important for your pet’s health, it’s important for yours.

What can you do?

There are some steps you can take to minimize the population of fleas and ticks:

  • Be honest with yourself about the problem. You almost certainly have fleas and ticks living in the zone around your home. If you think there may be fleas in your home, or if you’re concerned about fleas or ticks on your pet, talk to your veterinarian. He can recommend safe, effective products for your pets. In some cases, your vet may recommend a professional exterminator for your home.
  • Practice year-round flea-and-tick-control by using a product recommended by your veterinarian on every pet. This means using the product in January as well as in June and treating all cats and dogs in your family, regardless of where they spend their days.
  • Remove brush debris from around your home. These areas present opportunities for small flea- and tick-carrying animals to nest and provide a source of exposure for dogs and cats.
  • Get rid of that old upholstered furniture on the porch or in the garage where your dog or cat loves to hang out. These are perfect flea nests and, unless you get rid of them, they’ll contribute to ongoing infestations.
  • Close off crawl spaces and screen over vents under the house and leading into attics that can serve as runways for small mammals that carry fleas and ticks in with them.

Controlling fleas and ticks is doable. By arming yourself with information, discussing appropriate products with your veterinarian and taking steps to control environmental and wild life factors, you can win the flea-and-tick fight.

More on Vetstreet.com:

Join the Conversation

Like this article? Have a point of view to share? Let us know!