We Michiganders slog through our winters hoping for warm spring, summer and fall days. We white-knuckle through the travails of icy roads, snowy days and freezing temperatures with dreams of new life and greener times. And when April does finally arrive, we feel we finally can relax because the warm seasons are here. However, we also come to the realization that along with the season of warm weather comes the season of bugs – those crawling, creeping, flying insects and arachnids of summer. And for pet owners, this includes our furry friends’ worst nightmare: fleas and ticks.
Let’s first look at the classic dog and cat parasite, the flea. Fleas have a very misunderstood reputation. Everybody knows about them, but very few of us “get” their lifestyle and life cycle. Start with a gross, blood-sucking adult flea on your dog or cat. That tiny parasite can take a blood meal within seconds of hatching from its cocoon and within 48 hours, can lay thousands of eggs. Those eggs fall from our pets by plain old gravity and depending on temperature and humidity, hatch into even more disgusting larvae (maggots) within a few days. Now, we have these creatures living in our carpets and bedding or wherever your pet lays, sleeps or hangs out. From there, the larvae feed on the feces of the adult fleas which has also fallen from your dog or cat (this flea poop is the black “flea dirt” we see on our pets when they have fleas). Eventually, just like a butterfly, the larvae spin a cocoon and become tiny, encrusted, impossible-to-kill packets incubating an adult flea. When this process is complete, vibration and the carbon dioxide emanating from our pets’ bodies stimulate the baby flea to emerge from the cocoon and immediately take up residence in the animal’s protective fur and skin.
This life cycle breakdown explains some of the common misconceptions and myths surrounding fleas: Adult fleas do not live separated from their host for any length of time. Once on the animal, unless forced off with a flea comb or a paw-scratch, the tenacious flea stays put.
The wonderful news is that these days, we have great products to combat and basically eliminate fleas from our pets and our lives. These products are not your grandfather’s toxic flea powder or collars. No longer do we need to fill our homes with horrible foggers and sprays. Now, safe and super-effective once-a-month or every-three-month oral products are available to prevent and/or eliminate fleas. At Briarwood Veterinary Hospital, we recommend year-round flea and tick protection because the products we have are so safe for our pets and for us, so effective, and because we are seeing fleas and ticks even in cold weather.
Flea and tick prevention is crucial, not just because of the annoyance but also because fleas can carry some nasty diseases, including cat scratch fever. Ticks, of course, carry (among others) Lyme disease.
Speaking of ticks, we here in southeastern Michigan are in the midst of a tick invasion. At our practice, we have seen more ticks on dogs and cats and ourselves this year than in the last ten years combined. Because of our peninsular geography, we have been spared in years past. But no more.
Ticks are a multi-host parasite and there are many species in our area right now. The main feature of the dog/cat tick interface is that ticks tend to be in leafy, wooded areas (although we’ve seen them come from basic, suburban lawns) and are silent assassins. When ticks attach to feed, they inject a local anesthetic that cuts any itch a pet might feel. So, ticks are found by inspection, close inspection. They start off tiny and then as they feed, engorge to a gross, bloated, egg-filled, three-millimeter diameter size. Once found, a tick should be removed by a veterinarian with a “tick key.” We do not recommend removing a tick with your fingers, not because it will leave its head behind, they don’t (ticks like their heads), but because if a tick is full of Lyme disease bacteria, you could be exposed.
If you do find and remove, or have a vet remove a tick from your dog, we recommend testing for Lyme disease with a simple, in-clinic test done six weeks post-exposure. At Briarwood, we recommend testing every dog every year for Lyme disease as part of our routine yearly screen for heartworm disease.
But again, it is so much better to prevent. And again, our new products to prevent ticks, and therefore Lyme disease, are very safe and effective. There is just no reason in the year 2018 that any pet or household should suffer an infestation of ticks or fleas or the diseases they carry.
So, if you have a four-legged fur child or two, or three, or more at home and you want to keep the home and those cherished pets free of fleas and ticks, contact your local flea and tick control expert: your veterinarian.
The landscape for parasite prevention has never been safer or more effective than the present. Your pets will thank you!