What Every Pet Owner Should Know About Preventing Fleas and Ticks

Flea and tick medicine being applied to dog
The best way to stop a flea or tick infestation is prevention. Your veterinarian can recommend the best parasite control product for your pet.

The thought of insects crawling on your skin and living off your blood probably, well, makes your skin crawl. Yet, too often as pet owners, we allow fleas and ticks to treat our pets like bed-and-breakfasts. And it is only after these pests make themselves at home that we might realize showing them the door can be difficult, expensive and painfully slow.

Fleas and ticks aren’t just irritating and distasteful; they can lead to medical problems. Flea allergies can cause severe itching and skin damage; fleas can also carry the causative agents of cat-scratch disease, while ticks carry the organisms that can lead to debilitating illnesses like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. So it’s crucial to continuously and effectively prevent infestations of these parasites for the health and safety of our pets, our families and ourselves.

Fleas: The Prolific, Perplexing Parasite

Consider the life cycle of the common flea: The average female can lay 40 to 50 eggs daily. The eggs develop into maggot-like larvae and progress to a cocoon stage called pupae. These pupae wait several weeks to months for the ideal temperature and humidity to mature into adult fleas. That single adult flea you find on your pet represents about 5 percent of the total flea problem in your home; eggs, larvae, and pupae comprise the rest. Your pet — and your home — can be infested before a single flea is found. And finding them can be tough, especially on cats, because of their constant grooming. That’s why a one-time treatment for fleas isn’t usually enough.

Pet owners often discover a flea problem because of a pet’s severe itching, which sometimes is due to flea allergy dermatitis — a sensitization to the flea’s saliva when it draws a blood meal. No pet is safe from fleas and their bites, but not all pets are hypersensitive to them. This means severe infestations can occur without your dog or cat showing any obvious discomfort. Therefore, it’s best to use preventive tactics to help keep fleas from infesting your pet and home in the first place.

To do this, speak with your veterinarian about safe flea-control products that you can administer to your pet year-round. Some products are administered once a month, but other products provide longer-lasting protection. Ask your vet about the best choice for your pets. Consistent use of safe prevention products is the primary method of managing fleas. Newly hatched young adult fleas usually feed right away. If your pet has been treated with an appropriate flea product when these adult fleas emerge, you can help break the cycle of infestation. (Remember to treat all of the pets in the house, regardless of whether or not they’re itching.)

Treating your pet’s environment is also an important part of controlling and preventing flea infestations. Fleas lay their eggs on your pet, but the eggs usually fall off. Once in the environment, they molt into larvae and develop into the pupae stage. Larvae don’t survive well in sunlight, preferring instead to hide in dark, protected areas like deep carpet or pet bedding. Therefore, focus on treating the places your pet likes to rest, especially those that are out of sunlight, like a resting place in the shady area of the yard, your pet’s blanket or pillow — or even your bed (ick). Frequent cleaning or vacuuming can help reduce the pupal and larval stages of fleas in the carpet, and many flea control products used on pets also kill eggs and larvae.

But don’t forget that fleas can gain access to your house or yard in many ways, including wildlife, neighborhood cats and you, just to name a few. Also remember that if your dogs or cats are allowed access to other areas — such as parks, nature areas, crawl spaces or even the neighbor’s yard — they’ll have ample opportunity to encounter fleas. Therefore, even if you’re treating your pet, areas of your home and yard may also need regular attention.