Flea & Tick 101

With the mild winter it is a good bet that this year will be better for fleas and ticks – but worse for us and our pets. Let’s learn a bit about these pests and find ways to keep you and your pet safe.

What Are Fleas and Ticks and Where do they Come From?

Fleas and ticks are external parasites that can cause extreme discomfort for your pet and serious diseases for you and your pet.


Fleas can be found almost everywhere although they prefer warm humid climates. In most areas fleas are worst mid-late summer and early fall, but are year-round in some areas. Fleas usually enter your life through other flea-infested animals, like coyotes, possums and raccoons, or stray dogs and cats. They live and thrive in your home, yard or most any environment where your dog or cat plays.

Male and female cat fleas. Credit Jan Slapeta.

Female fleas can produce up to 2,000 eggs in her three-week life span. There are more than 2500 species of fleas, but the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis) most commonly afflicts dogs and cats.


Once infested with these blood-sucking insects, your pet will suffer from itchiness and could develop flea allergies.

Some pets are so allergic that even a single bite can cause a reaction. In severe cases, flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) can cause severe itching and inflammation that, if left untreated, can damage skin from excessive scratching and chewing. Secondary bacterial or fungal infections can develop as a result.

Fleas can also play a role in transmitting internal parasites, like tapeworms, caused by your pet ingesting a flea. In very severe infestations, particularly in old, ill, or young animals, fleas can remove so much blood through feeding that they can weaken the animal. To top it all off, fleas can also carry bacterial diseases, such as cat scratch fever (bartonellosis), to humans.


Ticks are related to spiders, scorpions, and mites. They are found in every region of the United States. Ticks are most prevalent in the early spring and late fall, although some species can be found any time of year. In general, they prefer dark, moist, brushy places in which to lay their eggs. Animals are susceptible to ticks when walking through the woods or high grass.

Blacklegged Tick. Credit: CDC.gov/ticks

Ticks can’t fly or jump. Instead, they rest on the tips of grasses and shrubs, waiting to climb onto a passing host.

There are approximately 80 tick species found in the United States, but only a few cause problems. The main culprits are the brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus), deer tick or blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis and Ixodes pacificus), and the American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis). The brown dog tick is the only species that can complete its entire lifecycle on a dog and infest homes and kennels.


Tick bites can be painful and irritating, but the real concern with ticks is the number of serious diseases they can transmit. The deer tick or black-legged tick can transmit Lyme disease. The American dog tick can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever. They can also transmit babesiosis, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. These diseases cause significant illness and even death in both pets and people.

How Do I Know If My Pet Has Fleas and/or Ticks?

Scratching or biting at specific areas is a common sign. Adult fleas are small and can be difficult to see, but flea combs work well to remove fleas as well as flea dirt. Flea dirt is flea feces, which is digested blood. To check your pet for fleas, run a flea comb through your pet’s fur and put the hair and debris onto a damp white paper towel. The dark specks that stain the towel red let you know your pet has fleas. Excessive grooming is a sign of itchiness which might point toward fleas.

Credit: kvue.com

The large tick species can be seen or felt in the hair coat, especially once they are engorged after feeding. Deer ticks, on the other hand, are about the size of the head of a pin in some stages which are difficult to see.

As always, work with your veterinarian on any flea or tick concerns you might have. Your vet is a true expert on how to prevent and treat them so don’t be shy!!

How Do I Prevent Fleas and ticks?

FIRST – Never use flea control products intended for dogs on cats. Some medications can be highly toxic to cats. Only use products on the species for which they are intended and follow all label instructions. I can’t remember how many times I have heard of terrible outcomes from people not following label directions and harming or killing their canine and feline family members.

This is one of the many areas where working with your veterinarian is essential. First, your vet knows which types of fleas and ticks are in your area and can recommend the best products for your individual circumstances. They will know your pets and ask a bunch of questions about your home and lifestyle. Your vet will explain different products and help guide you to the best decision. Here is some basic information on common products.

Credit: Pests.org

Oral flea and tick medication treatments

These come as chewables or pills, rather than applied to the skin. The medicine circulates in the body and is transferred to fleas when they bite. There are several active medications used in these products which last from a few days to a month. Here are some of the most common active medications found in oral treatments.

Lufenuron: This compound doesn’t attack feeding fleas; it goes after the larvae produced by the adults so any offspring will not survive. This medication does not kill ticks.

Nitenpyram: This works very quickly on fleas, in as little as thirty minutes but doesn’t have any long-term effect, so it shouldn’t be used for continuous flea control. This medication also kills ticks.

Spinosad: Spinosad kills adult fleas but does not kill ticks.

Topical Treatments

Topical flea and tick medication are generally applied to the skin between the pet’s shoulder blades so the pet can’t lick it off. Most topical medications last about 30 days. Some of these products not only kill fleas and ticks, they also repel them. These are some of the most common topical medications:

Fipronil: Fipronil works by spreading over the cat or dog through body oils in about a day. And lasts about a month. This medication also kills ticks.

Imidacloprid: This medication kills both adult and larval stage fleas that meet the pet. This medication does not kill ticks.

Pyrethroids: This medication is derived from a flower and comes in natural and synthetic forms. Pyrethroids are extremely toxic to cats so BE CAREFUL. Products with pyrethroids kill fleas, ticks and mites.

I am repeating this here because it is very important!! Never use flea control products intended for dogs on cats. Some medications can be highly toxic to cats. Only use products on the species for which they are intended and follow all label instructions.

How Do I Prevent Ticks?

Prevention starts with keeping pets out of “tick habitats,” such as heavily wooded areas or tall grass. If possible, create tick-free zones in your yard by keeping grass mown short and bushes cut back. Ticks like moist areas, so remove leaf litter from around your house. If necessary, you may need to treat your backyard with a pesticide to reduce the number of ticks. Check with your vet.

During tick season it’s very important to make a habit of performing a “tick check” on your pet at least once a day, especially if he or she has any access to wooded or grassy areas where ticks may hang out. If you find a tick, grasp it with a pair of tweezers as close to the mouthparts as you can reach. Exert a gentle, steady pressure until the tick lets go. There are also tick removal tools that are very easy to use. Never remove a tick with your bare fingers. Avoid using lighter fluid, matches, or other products that may irritate the skin or cause other injuries to your pet. As always, you can ask your veterinary care team for assistance removing the tick.

I have been asked many times over the years if the flea and tick products I have mentioned in this blog are effective. A ninety-day study, involving 128 dogs from five states, published in Veterinary Parasitology, showed that topicals were 88.4 percent effective, while oral treatments were 99.9 percent effective. The most important thing to remember is that products need to be given to your pet as directed to work correctly. I believe most product failures are due to the products not being used correctly or the owner forgetting to give the medicine to their pet.

Flea and tick preventative products can save lives – both of your two-legged and four-legged family members. Veterinarians are a very important part of your animal health care program and it’s important when buying any medication that you make sure your vet has approved the medication’s use for your pet and that you are purchasing it from a reputable source. It is also important to consider heartworm treatments. If your chosen flea medication doesn’t protect against heartworm, make sure to talk to your vet about how to protect your pet.

Have a great spring!!

Meet Petland’s Consulting Veterinarian, Dr. Thomas Edling, DVM, MSpVM, MPH:
Dr. Edling received his BS in Industrial Engineering from Texas A&M University in 1981 and his degree in Veterinary Medicine (DVM) from Colorado State University. He previously served as Vice President of Veterinary Medicine for Petco and was on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. In addition, Dr. Edling completed the American Board of Veterinary Practitioner’s residency program for Companion and Wild Avian Medicine and Surgery, at North Carolina State University, where he also received his Master in Specialized Veterinary Medicine (MSpVM) in 2001. In 2011, Dr. Edling completed the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at Johns Hopkins University. As a veterinarian, Dr. Edling works closely with the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians (NASPHV).

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