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Health & Wellness

Flea & tick prevention 101: how to protect your pet

Here’s what you need to know to make ticks and fleas flee.

Just thinking about fleas and ticks can be enough to make you feel itchy, but if you’ve got a dog or cat at home it’s crucial to have a preventive treatment plan to protect your pet (and yourself!) from those pesky parasites and the diseases they carry. Like annual exams and dental cleanings, flea and tick prevention is an important part of your pet’s routine care. (You can even save money on preventive medications when you add Fetch Wellness to your pet insurance plan.) To get all the details on what you need to know about flea and tick prevention for your pet, we spoke with Fetch Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. Aliya McCullough.  But first, here are a few facts about flea and tick prevention that may surprise you (and come in handy!).

Why are fleas and ticks so dangerous to pets?

Let’s start with the basics: besides making our skin crawl, fleas and ticks also present a serious threat to our pets’ health because of the diseases they can transmit. According to Dr. McCullough, fleas can carry tapeworms and bacteria, and tick bites can transmit bacteria that causes Lyme disease, Anaplasmosis and Ehrlichiosis (to name a few). Pets can also have allergic reactions to flea bites due to their saliva. 

In addition to being dangerous to dogs and cats, you don’t want to deal with a flea infestation in your home. Fleas are notoriously prolific and females produce 40-50 eggs per day and these eggs hatch within 2-12 days. (No, thank you!) 

What medication do pets need for flea and tick prevention? 

There’s power in prevention. The first step in protecting your pet from fleas and ticks is to take a proactive approach with  preventive medication. Usually prescribed by your vet, flea and tick preventives come in the form of an easy-to-administer chewable pill or topical product which provides protection from these parasites and the diseases they carry. 

Dr. McCullough recommends getting your pet started on preventive medication as soon as it’s safe for your dog or cat, which is typically around 8 weeks old and when your pet is at least 4 pounds. Your vet can provide more specific guidance on when your dog or cat should start medication and which preventive is right for them. Preventive flea-tick medications are typically taken once a month. 

While warm weather may pose a higher risk of flea and tick bites, Dr. McCullough says it’s key that your pet takes preventive medication all year round. In most parts of the U.S., it doesn’t get cold enough for long enough to completely stop flea and tick activity.

Signs that your pet has been bitten by a flea or tick

Fleas and ticks aren’t always easy to spot (more on that later), but there are a few ways to tell if your dog or cat has been bitten by one of these parasites. 

  • Fleas: According to Dr. McCullough, fleas will typically make your pet severely itchy, which you’ll notice if your dog or cat is excessively scratching, biting, licking and chewing at themselves. As a result, they also may have hair loss, skin redness or scabs. In the case of a heavy flea infestation, your pet may be weak, lethargic or have pale gums from blood loss. 
  • Ticks: Most pets won’t have a reaction to actually being bitten by a tick because they won’t feel it, but their skin may become red and swollen afterward around the bite area. In very rare situations, pets can experience tick paralysis, which can cause weakness and difficulty walking or moving. 

If you notice any of these signs, you should call your vet immediately to have your pet checked out. 

How to check your pet for fleas or ticks

You should get in the habit of checking your pet for ticks on a regular basis, especially if your dog or cat spends a lot of time outdoors in the woods or in high grass. Here are a few tips from Dr. McCullough on where to look on your pet’s body:

  • Fleas: If your pet has a mild infestation of fleas, it may be hard to see the tiny insects on your dog or cat unless you know where to look. You can use a flea comb to help examine your pet’s fur for flea dirt or fleas. Fleas especially like to be near the back, tail area and around the face and neck of pets. (“Flea dirt” spots are small dark specks on their pet’s skin and coat. The “dirt” is actually flea feces, and is a telltale sign of a flea infestation.)
  • Ticks: Like fleas, ticks also prefer to be on certain parts of pets’ bodies. Check the ears, tail, eyelids, under the collar, between back legs, under front legs and between toes. If you find a tick, don’t panic! You should remove it as soon as possible, but be careful not to crush it. Squeezing a tick or leaving the head in can increase the chance of them transmitting a disease. Instead, use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible and pull upward.

How are flea and tick bites treated?

In most cases the bites themselves do not require treatment, according to Dr. McCullough. That said, you should still consult your vet if your pet gets a flea or tick bite due to the risk of secondary infection or the possibility of tick-borne diseases. 

Flea and tick treatment options include both oral and topical products, most of which will start killing fleas and ticks within hours and act as a monthly preventive. If your pet gets an infection as a result of a bite (aka a secondary infection), they may need antibiotics, antifungal medications and/or topical products to relieve the itch and treat infection. Some pets may need to be dewormed as a result of a tapeworm infection from fleas.

As we’ve said, you should always talk to your vet about the best option for your pet based on their individual needs — that goes for getting your pet on preventive flea/tick medications and any treatment they may need as a result of a bite or infestation.

The Dig, Fetch's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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Photo credit: Mark Rimmel

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