Four Frequently Asked Questions About Fleas and Ticks

Dr. Tammie


April 13, 2022

Spring is not only the time for budding trees and flowering plants but warmer temperatures aid in parasite reproduction. Fleas and ticks that may have been dormant during the winter months in sheltered areas will start to “wake up” and want a meal from our pets. Both fleas and ticks should be abated in the environment to prevent pet infections as well as treating every pet in the home to keep the fleas and ticks from biting. As fleas and ticks start to be a problem again, here are some of the most common questions when it comes to these pesky external parasites.

Question 1: I found a flea on my pet what do I do?

Usually when there is one flea there can be more in the environment.  Fleas spend about 90% of their life cycle (eggs through, nymphs, and adults) off of the pets in the in the environment. This means that fleas lay eggs around base boards or in plant litter outside and immature stages will hide in the baseboards of the home, carpet and dark crevasses inside and outside the home.  If you see one flea on your pet you can be assured there are more in the environment.  Addressing the environmental “contamination” first will help to reduce those reproducing and growing fleas that have not even hopped on your pets yet. 

Controlling fleas on pets varies if the pet is a cat or dog but also changes depending on the age of the pet.  Young pets that are less than 2 pounds need specific and more mild control measures.  Many top spot or topical products are NOT labeled for use on very young animals.  Older or debilitated pets may need lower dosages if they have been losing weight.  Read the directions on the box or description on the products web site for any restrictions like only puppies and kittens 7 weeks and older for example.

Also look for weight restrictions or dosages based on the weight of the pet. Oral products labeled for young pets like Capstar® or Revolution® may work on pets two pounds and up but very young pets will require a more manual approach.  Bathing young pets in warm water and a small amount of dish liquid like Dawn® or Palmolive® along with the use of a flea comb to remove the fleas from the fur is the best flea control method on young pets. The more manual method of removing fleas works for any pet.  Once the pet is bathed then an age, species and weight appropriate product can be used.  If the pet is very young or very old contact your veterinarian about choosing a product that will meet your pets’ specific needs.

Question 2: I am seeing white things in my pet’s feces looks like rice?  What is going on?

If your pet has or has had a flea infection, the fleas can often be ingested when your pet chews on their itchy skin.  Fleas can often carry an immature form of tapeworms or Cysticercoids inside the flea.  When the flea is ingested by the pet (this can occur if fleas are ingested by people also) the immature stage develop in the small intestines into adult tapeworms.  The adult tapeworm will attach to the small intestine tissues and take their blood meal as they grow and mature.  When they are ready to reproduce the proglottids, an egg packet, are released and come out in the pet’s feces.  These proglottids look like flat rice grains and may be slightly mobile to dried out and immobile.  Frequently seen on the fur surrounding the anus as well as in fresh feces, or in the pet’s bed.  They may be white to slightly yellowish in color. 

If you are seeing signs of “rice” grains in your pets’ feces or environment have them seen ASAP by your veterinarian.  Your vet will run a fecal exam to confirm the infection and may recommend blood work to determine if your pet is also anemic. Both fleas and tapeworms can cause significant blood loss. Your veterinarian will send home a specific wormer to kill the tapeworms in the digestive tract and may recommend further treatments in 14 days.  Likely they will recommend flea control as well. Since tapeworms are a human health hazard if you are not feeling well discuss your pet’s positive fecal results with your medical doctor.

Question 3: I removed a tick from my pet and now there is a bright red mark on their skin!  Is my dog going to be sick? 

While some dogs can have a local reaction to the tick bite, and occasionally cats, the bite wound can become very inflamed and even form a large bruise.  The tick before ingesting their blood meal will inject a type of anticoagulant into the local skin vessels.  The anticoagulant can lead to some mild local bleeding under the skin and formation of a bruise. Ticks can carry one or several tick-borne diseases that can infect pets when they take their blood meal. If there is just one small area of bruising you can apply a cool compress to the area or clean with mild pet shampoo and cool water.  Watch the area for increase in size, swelling or appearance of more spots.  If there are multiple bruising or red spots, or swellings on your pet’s skin they should be examined by a veterinarian since bruising can also be a sign of a bleeding disorder or tick-borne diseases.

Tick borne diseases include Lyme, Ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Anaplasmosis. While some of these diseases were thought to be regional it appears they are spreading from their original US localities.  Ticks also seem to be increasing and traveling out of their home ecosystems.  Ticks that have been tested during studies of tick-borne illnesses have been shown to carry one or more diseases that could infect pets.  That does not mean that the pet would come down with all the diseases at once but regionality of diseases is becoming less important—any pet can be exposed to any disease through the bite of a tick. For example, Lyme disease was originally only thought to infect deer ticks and deer ticks were not supposed to carry Ehrlichiosis. But pets that have never traveled to areas with the brown dog tick that is considered to be the transmitter of Ehrlichiosis have come down with Ehrlichiosis.  Similarly, although the brown dog tick is responsible frequent infections in dogs with Ehrlichiosis in central and southwestern Arizona, they have also been found to be important in the transmission of Rocky Mountain spotted fever in the dry desert locations (author’s own experience working with NIH).

Tick borne diseases transmitted by tick bites do not all cause the same types of symptoms in an infected pet. It is important to know if you have removed a tick what symptoms to watch for in the next few to fourteen days after a tick bite.

Signs of Lyme disease also known as Borreliosis—Usually carried by the deer tick, includes fever, lethargy, lameness, swollen lymph nodes and reduced appetite.  Dogs can also have swollen joints. Severe cases can develop kidney, heart and neurological problems.  Animals unlike humans do not get a rash. Cats can become infected and dogs that have had Lyme infection are not immune.  In dogs there is a Lyme vaccine available but prevention in both dogs and cats are recommended to reduce the likelihood of a human infection from a tick bite.

Signs of Ehrlichiosis—Ehrlichiosis can be transmitted by both the Lone Star and Brown dog tick. Cats are less likely to get Ehrlichiosis. Now spread throughout the US and worldwide Ehrlichiosis causes lethargy, reduced appetite, fever, painful joints or lameness, and signs of bruising often seen on the gums or skin of the abdomen. Ehrlichiosis causes reduced number of platelets in the blood and can appear clinically like a bleeding disorder. There is no vaccine so prevention of ticks is of the upmost importance.

Signs of Anaplasmosis—Anaplasmosis can be carried by several ticks including Deer ticks and Western black legged ticks. Anaplasmosis can be transmitted by ticks along with other tick diseases to both dogs and cats. Signs include fever, painful joints or lameness, vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes severe neurological signs. Pets can be re-infected if exposed again and there is no vaccine.  Prevention of tick bites is the means of control.

Signs of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever—Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever has also spread across the US from the east, Midwestern, and Plains regions. Pockets of infection have occurred in the southwestern deserts so like many tick borne disease, likely is spreading. Ticks must attach to a dog or cat for at least five hours for transmission to occur. Signs include fever, decreased appetite, lethargy, lameness, painful joints, vomiting, diarrhea and in severe cases pneumonia, kidney failure, liver damage, stumbling and seizures. There is no vaccine for this disease so prevention of tick bites is important.

Signs of Babesiosis--Babesiosis is transmitted by Deer ticks and Western Black legged tick.  Signs can be subtle at first especially in the cats and can be acutely severe in the dog.  Since Babesiosis affects the red blood cells, signs common in dogs include pale gums, lethargy or exercise intolerance, dark urine, fever and swollen lymph nodes. Cats’ signs will progress over time and include weakness, reduced appetite, lethargy, rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, fever and anemia. Again, prevention is key.

Signs of Bartonellosis--Bartonellosis also carried by fleas and responsible for cat scratch fever and transmitted by deer ticks and western blacklegged ticks. Cats generally do not show signs of infection but can have severe signs in some cases.  Dogs like humans will show signs of nausea, reduced appetite, irregular heartbeat, swollen lymph nodes, muscle pain, fever, vomiting and diarrhea.  Severe cases may also have lameness or joint pain, enlarged liver or spleen, chronic arthritis and inflammation of the heart and neurological signs. Prevention of fleas and ticks on both dogs and cats as well as the environment is important preventative measures.

Signs of Tick Paralysis –Tick paralysis is not caused by a disease organism but the toxins in the tick’s saliva. The most common ticks to cause tick paralysis are the brown dog tick and the Rocky Mountain wood tick but both the Lone Star and deer ticks can also cause tick paralysis. It is uncommon for cats to be affected but cases have been reported. The toxin from the tick bite attacks the nervous system of the pet. Usually, the signs start with incoordination and then an ascending weakness that will start in the back legs and soon affect all four feet. Other signs include vomiting, gagging, changes in breathing, and dilated pupils.  If not treated pets can die from paralysis of the diaphragm. Supportive care is important and pets can improve quickly after removal of the tick.  Prevention is key. 

Question 4: How do I prevent flea and tick infections?

Check that your flea preventative also prevents ticks.  Some top spot and oral products only prevent fleas and have no affect on ticks. Sometimes immediate treatment is need and using the manual approach of bathing the pet in a dish soap and using a flea comb or manually removing the ticks can address any fleas or ticks while prolonged preventative can be acquired the next day.

Fleas are wingless insects that will hop and scurry in your pet’s fur.  They are attracted to the warmth of passing dogs and cats and can sense where their next blood meal is coming from.  Fleas lay their eggs and spend several nymphal stages in the environment.  About 90% of their life cycle is spent in the environment so if you are seeing fleas on your pet there are likely many more in the home and yard. Products used on or given orally to pets are only controlling fleas during 10% of their life cycle. Many products also help to reduce eggs and nymphal stages but that does not mean that the carpet, base boards, and crevasses in the home should not be thoroughly cleaned.  Also change the bag of the vacuum often since fleas can live in the vacuum. Attacking both the fleas in the environment and preventing fleas from getting on pets is the best way to prevent fleas bites.

Tick populations are also important to reduce indoors and outdoors.  Ticks are arachnids and do not hop.  Instead, they stretch out their first two legs and body, waving their legs in the air to perform their seeking or questing behavior. The tick’s front legs have both heat and CO2 sensing organs that help the tick find its next victim. It is more of an ambush technique where they will crawl up grass or out onto bushes or branches, then wait for a pant leg or passing fur of the pet to grab on to. The tick will then crawl down to the skin to bite and take their blood meal.  Ticks can hide in the home in dark areas to lay eggs but some prefer the shade and canopy of trees outdoors as well.  Spraying indoors and outdoors as well as tick prevention for pets will help to keep these relatives of spiders at bay.

Household sprays for yard and premise like Advantage® can provide a do-it-yourself advantage over having to schedule an exterminator.  Always follow the directions on any products and keep pets and children away from the wet product.  Calling an exterminator has the advantage of having indoors and outdoors spraying done at one time and may outweigh in the inconvenience of temporarily moving your pets.  Talk to them about any other pets that cannot be moved like pond or aquarium fish, reptiles and birds that may be affected by overspray.

Final thoughts

Spring time is great at the weather warms up but pesky external parasites on our pets are never fun.  By controlling fleas and ticks in both the environment and on the pets both you and your pets will feel much better. If you have questions or I have sparked additional questions on a subject don’t hesitate to contact us at, Ask Vet for a virtual consult on any pet questions you have.  We will be glad to help you and your furry buddy with any questions or concerns you have!

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