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16 FAQ’s about Fleas, Ticks, and Flea Infestations in Dogs


1.      What are fleas?

Fleas are small insects about 1-2 mm in length. Adult fleas live in the coat and bedding of dogs, cats and other animals and feed on their blood. The female adult lays eggs (up to 500 per flea per day!) which roll off the animal into the environment, and then hatch into larvae. The larvae burrow into carpet or soft furnishings, or into any small crevices, then form a sticky cocoon and enter the pupae stage. The pupae can stay in this state for up to two years. The adult flea will only emerge once it senses that there is a suitable host nearby (using signals such as vibration and carbon dioxide levels). The new adult flea then uses its powerful legs to jump onto the passing animal and start the cycle all over again.

2.      How can I tell if my dog has fleas?

Close examination of your dog may reveal these small, black insects moving rapidly through your dogs’ coat. If there are few fleas present, only flea dirt may be evident which will appear as small, black specks. This is actually flea faeces, which is passed through the insect after sucking blood from your dog.  To confirm the presence of fleas, use a fine toothed flea comb and comb through the dog’s coat. Use a damp piece of cotton wool to pick up any black specks you comb out of the coat.  If it is flea dirt, the specks will turn reddish-brown as the blood pigment dissolves.

Some dogs may tolerate fleas well, with only very slight scratching. Others can show a severe allergic reaction to both flea bites and flea saliva. This can result in intense scratching and chewing of neck, ears, thighs and base of the tail. Your dog may also spin around quickly to chew itself when the flea bites. In extreme cases, your dog’s skin may start to scale and discolour. Hair loss and secondary bacterial infections may also occur.

3.      How do I control fleas?

Because most of the flea life cycle is carried out within the environment rather than on the dog, it is very important to minimise this aspect of it. Using a preventative spot on treatment should mean that adult fleas are killed before they can produce too many eggs. In addition, a product such as Program that interrupts the life cycle by ensuring the juvenile stages cannot develop can be very useful. Environmental sprays will also kill any fleas in the environment – however, bear in mind that nothing will kill the pupae.

4.      Can't I just deal with a flea problem if it happens?

Prevention is very important when dealing with fleas. Controlling and eliminating an already existing flea problem can be frustrating, time consuming and expensive. Because 95% of the problem is in the environment, even using the best quality flea treatment on your dog will not prevent the new fleas hatching from the environment jumping up and biting your dog. If a flea infestation does develop in your home, it will usually take a minimum of three months to get on top of it. During this time, a good quality spot on treatment should be used monthly on all animals in the house, as well as an environmental spray in the home. A fast-acting product such as Capstar can be useful to kill the initial batch of fleas on the dog, but it will not have any residual effect so should be combined with a spot on treatment.

5.      What are the dangers of fleas?

Fleas have irritating bites. They can also carry tapeworm, cause flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), hair loss (due to scratching), and secondary skin irritations. In large numbers, fleas can cause anaemia from blood loss, especially in puppies and kittens where it can be life threatening.

6.      What is the best treatment for dogs with Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD)?

If your dog is suffering from a skin complaint, only your vet can provide a diagnosis and treatment plan. Your vet may have to carry out some diagnostic tests to determine the cause of the skin issue. If FAD is diagnosed, you need to be extremely vigilant to prevent flea infestations. Since your goal is to prevent bites from occurring in the first place, you should use a product that kills adult fleas and also eliminates as many stages of the flea's life cycle as possible. This involves using both an adulticide and an Insect Growth Regulator (IGR) or Insect Development Inhibitor (IDI). These easy-to-use spot-on treatments kill adult fleas and prevent eggs and larvae from developing.

If your dog is on a flea control program and still suffers occasional flare-ups, itching can be controlled with products recommended by your veterinarian.

7.      Do fleas only exist in dirty homes?

The only way to prevent fleas is to use preventative flea treatments on your dog all year round. Unfortunately, even an immaculately kept home is likely to become infested if the dog is not treated correctly. Larvae can burrow into cracks and crevices so well that no amount of vacuuming will dislodge them or their pupae.

8.      How do I use my flea comb1 to check for fleas?

Start by combing around the hindquarters and head of the dog, common areas for fleas to hide. These same areas should be examined for "flea dirt."

9.      What is the difference between IGRs (Insect Growth Regulators) and IDIs (Insect Development Inhibitors)?

IGRs and IDIs are used in some monthly flea prevention products to eliminate the immature form of the flea.

An IGR mimics the juvenile growth hormone of fleas. The juvenile growth hormone is what keeps the fleas from developing into more mature forms. Normally, as the level of juvenile growth hormone decreases, the larva matures. Since the IGR keeps the level of the hormone from decreasing, the juvenile never develops into an adult; it fails to molt and then dies. IDIs inhibit the synthesis of a substance called chitin (the outside, protective "shell" of the insect). Chitin is necessary for the formation of the hard outside skin (cuticle) of the flea

IGRs and IDIs do not kill adult fleas, so to be most effective they should be used along with a product that does kill the adults (adulticide). Because IGRs and IDIs mimic insect hormones or alter a unique insect process (chitin production), they are extremely safe for humans.

10.  How long do fleas live for?

The complete flea life cycle, from egg to larva to pupa to adult, normally takes about 15 days. However, under inhospitable conditions (e.g.; cold temperatures, or lack of a host) the pupa stage can become dormant. This dormant period can extend the flea's life cycle to over a year. When the pupa senses the vibrations, carbon dioxide, or warmth that tells it an animal host is near, it finishes developing into an adult and emerges from its cocoon.

11.  What are ticks?

Ticks are small, light grey, rounded insects which feed from the blood of animals. They vary in size and when engorged, can reach the size of a pea.  They can be found anywhere on the dog’s body but are most frequently found on the ears, face or abdomen where hair cover is relatively thin. Ticks will only feed at certain times of their life. Peak activity is between the months of March to June and from August to November. Most of their life cycle is spent outside in areas of long grasslands and moorland but they can also survive in cracks and crevices in the walls and floors of kennels.

12.  How can I tell if my dog has ticks?

Adult ticks can be seen attached to the skin of your dog and will resemble a small, smooth wart or blood blister. If your dog has only a few ticks, they may have little effect on your dog. Occasionally your dog’s skin may become irritated due to an allergic reaction to the bite.  If infestations are heavy, anaemia may develop. Ticks can however be carriers of disease, which can be transmitted to the dog when bitten.

13.  What diseases can a tick transmit to my dog?

Ticks are responsible for transmitting many diseases in dogs – these vary geographically.

Lyme disease or Borreliosis is an illness transmitted by ticks that can affect humans, dogs and cats. The disease is appearing more often, and in more locations, therefore every dog owner should know and be able to recognise its symptoms:

-          painful or stiff muscles and joints

-          tiredness

-          fever

-          lack of appetite

     -          (sometimes) sudden collapse

Ticks can transmit diseases to animals and people. The most significant disease caused to dogs by ticks is Babesiosis. This parasite forces its way into the red blood cells. Symptoms of this disease are shortness of breath, fever, red urine and sudden death.

Canine Ehrlichiosis is a disease caused by Ehrlichia canis. The main symptoms are: fever, loss of weight, tiredness and lack of appetite. This disease can in turn lead to considerable anaemia and low number of platelets. Other symptoms observed are heavy and laboured breathing and stiffness in the legs. Erhlichiosis is a very serious disease and can be fatal.

14.  How do I control ticks?

When a tick is removed from your dog’s body, it is important that its mouthparts do not remain embedded in your dog’s skin or this may result in irritation, infection and abscess. To prevent this from happening, it is always best to use a specially designed tick remover, or get your vet to remove the tick. There are many preparations available on the market that will kill ticks and, if you use these regularly, they can help prevent infestation.

15.  How can I help reduce my dog's exposure to ticks?

Keeping dogs out of woodlands helps to reduce their exposure to fleas and ticks. Removing leaves and clearing tall grass from the garden areas can also help reduce the number. But any dog playing outside can easily pick up fleas or ticks and therefore, the preventative approach is most recommended. It is important to remember that in heavily infested areas no preventative can be 100% effective, so it is important to check your dog for ticks after every walk.

16.  Can I stop worrying about fleas and ticks once it starts getting cold?

Flea and tick prevention should be provided all year round. In the winter fleas thrive in warm centrally heated houses and although ticks are more commonly picked up in warm weather, they are also prevalent in spring and autumn.