How does my dog get fleas and ticks?

Dogs typically pick up fleas and ticks in the environment. The outdoor setting is the most common, but many often overlook that fleas and ticks can hitch a ride on other animals and the pant legs of people walking in and out of the house. And so, we commonly see fleas and ticks on pets that rarely leave the house. And that's just because fleas and ticks are mobile. In other words, it's impossible to have an environment that's completely safe from fleas and ticks.

Dr. Shawn McCorkle
Summer Creek Animal Clinic

Can fleas and ticks spread from my dog to my home and family?

Yes, absolutely. Particularly fleas (but also ticks) prefer the animal host. And so, if you have a dog or cat in the environment, they're going to gravitate towards them. However, they will feed on people. Also, ticks are pretty sneaky. You can have a tick on you for quite a while before you notice it. So the best way to protect your family is to protect your pets from fleas and ticks because they're the most common mode of transmission of those parasites to people.

Can my dog get fleas and ticks if they are primarily an indoor dog?

Even if you had a strictly indoor dog that only goes out to the bathroom, we're still going to see fleas. For example, many cats are indoor-only cats, and it is still common for indoor cats that are not on prevention to have fleas from time to time. So the short answer to that is absolutely yes. Fleas can get in the house and set up shop if you're not careful.

What health problems can and ticks cause my dog?

Beyond fleas and ticks being disgusting, we worry about the transmission of diseases in dogs, cats, and people. And many people are familiar with tick-borne diseases transmitted from tick bites. The one that people are most familiar with is Lyme disease. But fleas can actually transmit diseases as well to both people and animals. There's a variety of conditions that come from fleas and ticks, and infectious diseases are certainly a concern. The other thing with fleas is that it is one of the most common allergies we see in dogs and cats. So if you have a dog whose immune system is abnormally responding to the flea saliva, that saliva gets into the skin and causes the immune system to overreact, and that leads to inflammation and intense itching. That is one of the most common things we see but is, fortunately, the easiest allergy to prevent.

How effective are flea and tick medications?

That's a pretty loaded question because it depends on the type of prevention or treatment that you're using. We can start with something basic, like flea and tick shampoo. They are somewhat effective for killing fleas on the pet at that moment. But all too often, people think that that will protect their pets from fleas and ticks, and that is absolutely not the case. There's not that a residual effect. And so you're going perhaps kill the parasites that are on the pets. But I hope the most significant thing people take away from this video is that they spend at least 85% of their time in the environment, particularly with fleas. And so you're not going to get rid of a flea infestation if you're intermittently killing fleas that are on the pet because the vast majority of those fleas are in the environment.

There are flea and tick products that we would categorize as over the counter. Those are going to be your less expensive topical products. There's a considerably varying degree of effectiveness. As a general rule of thumb, like with many things, the cheaper the product, the less effective they are and the more likely you will have side effects. Of course, that's a generalization, but it is typically true. The more expensive over-the-counter products generally will be more effective and usually safer. And then, you have the prescription-level products that you can get through your veterinarian. And those are the most effective products. Discuss your dog's lifestyle with your veterinarian, and they should be able to recommend the best product for your pet.

What is the difference between the over-the-counter and the prescription medications, and why should I go with one over the other?

The short answer to that is that prescription products will be safer and more effective. Now there are nuances there. So when we break it down and again, generally speaking, the over-the-counter products are going to be topical products regulated by the EPA. They have to have specific qualifications to get the approval of the EPA that's mainly looking at the safety of the product. So if it is safe to use, they can get approval to sell it over the counter. The prescription products are regulated by the FDA, a much more rigorous process that is looking for both safety and efficacy. Efficacy just means its ability to do what it claims to do, so it's a more tightly regulated and stringent approval process.

Any of these products will have the potential for side effects or reactions. So those always have to be considered, but that's the big difference between over-the-counter products and prescription, of course, as over-the-counter products are going to be less expensive than prescription products. Still, the prescription products, particularly the oral of flea and tick preventions, will be the most effective products at killing fleas and ticks and preventing infestations moving forward.

We mainly already addressed topical and oral products, but there are flea and tick collars that many people are aware of. Unfortunately, the vast majority of flea and tick collars are minimally effective, and I do see a higher tendency of reactions to those. And again, the cheaper the flea and tick collar, the less effective they are and the more chance for reactions. One flea and tick collar has had relatively good results, but it's actually going through a lot of scrutiny right now, and I'm waiting for more data to come out from that. So I don't want to list the specific name, but I would generally be cautious when using the flea and tick collars.

What will my veterinarian recommend for flea and tick treatment?

Flea and tick treatment recommendations depend on your individual pet history, the breed, and their exposure level. We are very blessed in 2021 to have many good options, whereas just 20 years ago, the options for good prevention were very limited. With more research and more development comes better results. For example, we use four classes of products now at our practice. So four options provide excellent prevention. We chose the products we did because they are very safe. You have to consider nuances, which is why it's always a good idea to discuss flea and tick prevention with your veterinarian to ensure the choice is a good product for your dog where you live. We want to pick something that will provide an adequate level of protection and be as safe as possible for that pet. And so here in Ft. Worth, we need excellent heartworm prevention, flea prevention, tick prevention, and a regular intestinal dewormer because parasites are such a big deal here.

How can I identify fleas and ticks on my dog?

We'll start with ticks because that's a relatively more straightforward question to answer. Ticks can be challenging to find on your pet, as they are generally slower-moving than fleas. They tend to attach and feed for a while. When you go out in an area with higher exposure, such as in the woods, by plants, or in dog parks, you should check your pet and yourself after that. It's about looking in areas where ticks like to hide, so that's going to be the armpits of the dog, both on the front legs and in the back legs, underneath the paws, in between the toes on both the top and the bottom, and inside the ear flaps. They like to hide inside there, so get a good look inside the ear. You'll also want to check the underside of the belly, the inguinal area, and, really, anywhere else on the body. So you want to do a good look check but make sure you look in those areas that are more hidden and difficult to see, as that's where they like to hang out.

Fleas are a bit more complex because people generally expect to see if they have a flea problem. And I cannot tell you how many times I have found fleas or evidence of fleas on a dog or cat that are unknown to the client. And that's because, again, it's essential to remember that fleas spend at least 85% of their time in the environment. So unless you have a severe flea infestation, there's a really good chance you won't see a lot of fleas on your pet. You could still have a pretty decent infestation in the environment, whether that be in your yard, inside the dog's bedding, or under the carpet—places where the pets hang out. If you don't have a severe infestation, you're not going to see a lot of fleas on your pet, so that's important to remember.

The other thing is fleas like to defecate on pets. And so knowing what flea dirt, or flea feces, looks like helps. You can look for that on your dog. It looks like tiny black granules of dirt. And so if you start at the base of the tail and slowly run your thumbs through your pet's hair, you can sometimes see tiny black specks of dirt at the base of the hair, right around where the skin is, and that is evidence of fleas. When I find flea dirt, I might get lucky and find an adult flea walking around. But most of the time, I just see a lot of flea dirt and no adult fleas, as the fleas jump off the dog, but the feces stays on.

I would also tell owners to be diligent about looking for itching because flea allergies are so common in dogs—itching that primarily focuses around on the base of the tail, on the dog's back, or the back half of the dog's body. Those are classic signs of flea allergy dermatitis, particularly if there's hair loss and redness around the base of the tail on top of the back or extending onto the tail. Those are classic flea allergies. And again, even if we don't see fleas, I can guarantee that dog has had them because their immune system is reacting and causing all of this inflammation.

So those are the main ways I would try to counsel clients to find fleas and ticks on their dogs. And I can't stress enough that even if there are none of those things, it doesn't mean that there aren't fleas on your pets. You could still have a low-grade infestation and not see any of those things. And so, the most critical takeaway is to ensure that your dpg is on regular, year-round flea and tick prevention every single month of the year.

What should I do if I see fleas or ticks on my dog?

Besides freak out because they're gross!? I would recommend that you call your veterinarian first thing. There's a more detailed conversation that you can have with your veterinarian, which will help get the issue under control. For example, if you have multiple pets in the house, you're going to struggle to get a flea infestation under control until you get all of those pets well protected. So I think the best answer I can give is to contact your veterinarian, have that discussion with them, and get your pet on really good parasite prevention.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (817) 523-1139, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

Dog Flea and Tick - FAQs

Dr. Shawn McCorkle
Summer Creek Animal Clinic

What diseases are associated with fleas and ticks?

People tend to think that ticks transmit diseases, which they do, but fleas also transmit diseases. We commonly see tapeworms in animals that fleas have transmitted. Tapeworms are tiny intestinal parasites that look like grains of rice. Your pet cannot get them without ingesting fleas. If a flea gets on a pet and bites them, the dog or cat will get itchy, turn around, and eat them. That's how the tapeworm completes its life cycle. The thing that people are most aware of in humans, is cat scratch fever, which is a flea-transmitted disease. Those are just two among many diseases that fleas cause.

Ticks, on the other hand, are known for transmitting many different diseases. The most well-known of which is Lyme disease in humans. This is an issue of endemic severity. It isn't a big problem here in the Fort-Worth area yet, but it is a big issue in places like the Northeast, where people often get Lyme disease. Dogs are often the source of infection because ticks bite dogs that transmit the disease to people. Apart from Lyme disease, ticks also cause Ehrlichia, anaplasmosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, among other conditions.

If my dog is diagnosed with fleas and ticks, what is the treatment to get rid of them?

If your dog has fleas or ticks, the most important thing to do is to get a recommendation from your veterinarian regarding which product would be good for them.

Nowadays, oral flea and tick preventions, which are prescription-level products, are used. The reason for this is that they are so effective at killing fleas and ticks as well as preventing them. There's a lot of online information that talks about how dangerous these products are. That is not the case. They have to be FDA-approved to be prescribed and used, which means they have to go through rigorous testing. With many of these products, there are risks involved, making your decision of which product to use all the more important. It needs to be a decision that you and your veterinarian make together.

We typically use oral flea and tick products in dogs. With all the thousands of doses we do yearly, we rarely see any problems. These products have very low risks and extremely high effectiveness. Unless your dog has an underlying issue, we recommend these products. Fortunately, there are other quality products to consider as well.

What is the flea life cycle, and why is it important to know this for treatment?

The reason that the flea life cycle is important to understand is that knowing where the products work within this cycle is helpful.

Does it kill the adults, the eggs, or the larva? Where in the life cycle is it effective? I can think of one product that only has an insect growth regulator. That means that it will prevent the eggs from hatching, but it won't do anything for the rest of the life cycle. For instance, it won't kill adult fleas. Generally speaking, if we are looking for something that will treat and prevent fleas, we want something that will kill the adult quickly. That's how you make sure that the fleas won't feed and reproduce. Even if you don't have fleas in your environment, it's common for fleas to make their way into the environment through humans, especially here in Fort-Worth. They catch a ride on our pant legs, or wildlife can get into the yard. So you do need a product that will kill adult fleas before they multiply.

Are flea and tick treatments painful at all?

Generally speaking, no. If you have a severe tick infestation and you have to manually peel ticks off, that could get uncomfortable. But, it's not often painful. Flea and tick baths used to be a big thing 10 or 20 years ago, but that has fallen out of favor because products and preventions that kill them have gotten so good. We don't typically recommend any sort of dipping for severe flea or tick infestations in our hospital. We just start the animals on prevention that will kill them as quickly as possible. That is the mainstay of both treatment and prevention.

What are the risks of treatment?

It depends on the product you are using. For example, topical products and flea and tick collars, especially the cheap ones, can cause intense skin reactions. There's always a risk even with better quality products because every patient is different and will react differently. There will always be a risk of skin irritation or reaction. Another thing that most people are aware of is the neurologic side effects. That's how these products kill fleas and ticks, so the concern is whether it will cause neurologic side effects in a pet. We tend to see these problems with cheaper, over-the-counter products, but there will still be a risk even with the best products.

The biggest concern is the neurologic side effects. Have a discussion with your veterinarian to decide on the best product for your pet, taking into consideration their history, breed, and physical exam findings. One thing that would lead me to decide on a different product than I would typically choose is if your pet has a history of seizures, which could increase their risk of certain side effects. That being said, I have seen dogs with a history of seizures staying on these products without it having any effect on their seizures. So it won't cause your dog to have seizures, but those are the clinical aspects to consider when making a decision.

Are there natural or over-the-counter treatments for fleas and ticks?

That comes up a lot these days. Some remedies supposedly have an effect on killing fleas. I don't know of any that have a long duration of action to prevent them, but it may be out there. The problem with those things is not that they're for sure ineffective, there is just not any good research to support using something like essential oils as flea prevention. There are also potential risks involved, like if your pet ingests too much of it. The short answer is that I can't recommend any options that are definitely going to be effective or safe.

When we're looking at products, particularly FDA-regulated products, we can be confident to a certain degree that those products have been tested and will be safe and effective. Even the over-the-counter products have at least been tested for safety concerns.

How do I get rid of fleas and ticks in our home?

That's a great question because it comes up a lot when a pet is diagnosed with fleas or ticks, and the owners are concerned that they have them in their environment. If other unprotected pets are in the environment, the answer will almost always be yes. The most important thing when you have a pet with fleas or ticks is not the environmental treatment. It's making sure that all the pets in the environment are on good monthly prevention year-round. This is the case in environments similar to Fort-Worth, Texas. If you're in a different climate, you will have to have a discussion with your veterinarian about if prevention needs to be done year-round, which is mostly the case. So the first step is getting all the pets on flea and tick prevention. That will ensure that the food source of the fleas and ticks is unavailable. They won't be able to feed, and they will die, so they can't reproduce.

It doesn't mean that environmental treatment isn't helpful. I still encourage it, particularly with fleas because they set up shop in the environment very quickly and to a large degree. I recommend focussing on environmental decontamination in addition to flea and tick prevention. It doesn't necessarily involve using a lot of pesticides. I encourage clients to do a thorough cleaning like vacuuming any area that is shaded, for instance, the carpet under the couch, couch cushions, and washing the dog and cat bedding. Doing deep cleaning and vacuuming multiple times a week to try to get all the eggs out of the carpet, rugs, and bedding will help speed the process along, but only in conjunction with having pets on prevention.

People often say they don't need prevention because a pest control company comes out monthly or quarterly. In my experience, that is completely inadequate at ensuring that you won't have a flea problem, especially with our climate. That won't provide enough coverage to be sure that fleas don't set up shop. Firstly, you won't be able to treat every nook and cranny of the house or the yard. I'm not a big fan of that kind of treatment for fleas and ticks. It's not wrong, it just won't be enough. It gives you a false sense of security. If you want to do pest control services, great. It's unnecessary to do that if your pets are on good flea and tick prevention.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (817) 523-1139, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.