Fleas and Ticks and Mosquitoes, Oh My!

One of the worst parts of being a dog guardian are the little critters that accompany your dog wherever he goes. These bugs aren’t just a nuisance; they can cause serious diseases for both your dog and your family.

The Life Cycle of Fleas

The adult female flea finds a warm-blooded host, such as your dog or cat, and lives on the animal for several weeks. She sucks the hosts blood for food several times each day and lays 20 – 30 eggs every day. The eggs fall off of your pet wherever he goes, on your carpets, in your yard, and in your bed if the animal sleeps with you.

The eggs hatch into larvae, which feed on any organic matter they can find. Their food might include the scales of skin that fall off of you when you scratch yourself, and even the feces of adult fleas, which are a rich source of the food they love best – blood. As the larvae grow, they molt twice and then form a protective cocoon where they live as pupae. The pupae can survive for quite awhile and are very resilient to cool temperatures.

The pupae wait until they sense heat, vibrations, and carbon dioxide, all of which indicate a warm-blooded host nearby. They emerge from their cocoons and immediately jump onto a nearby host. Contrary to popular belief, fleas do not have wings and cannot fly. They simply jump on very strong back legs from wherever they hatch onto a host, or from host to host.

In optimal conditions, where the ambient temperature is between 65 and 80 degrees, with 75 – 85% humidity, a flea completes his entire life cycle in 14 days. This explains why fleas are considered summer-time pests in many North American climates. However, in the southern United States, they can live and multiply year-round.

How Fleas Cause Problems

Fleas love to be warm, which is why they flock to animals that have a higher body temperature than the surrounding environment. Dogs and cats both have body temperatures of around 101 – 102 degrees, making them prime targets to be flea hosts.

Keep in mind that to survive, a flea must bite its host to suck out blood for food. The flea’s bite causes itching, and if the host animal is allergic or sensitive, the severe itching leads to hair loss, inflammation, and even skin infections. In a hypersensitive host, a single flea bite can cause the host to itch all over.

Because the flea must suck the host animal’s blood to survive, severe flea infestations may cause anemia in the host animal, especially in small breeds. In addition, fleas can also cause your dog to get tapeworms or other parasites.

How Do I Know If My Pet Has Fleas?

Fleas are large enough to be seen by the human eye. If you notice your dog or cat scratching a lot, you should part the animal’s hair and look at the surface of the skin. Fleas have a dark copper color and are about the size of the head of a pin. Fleas typically like to congregate in dark areas, such as on the belly and inner thighs.

You can also look for the feces the fleas leave behind. The feces, known as “flea dirt”, look like pepper on the surface of the skin. If you can, pick a few pieces of flea dirt off of the animal and put them on a wet paper towel. After a few minutes, the feces will dissolve and form a blood stain because the feces are composed mainly of your pet’s blood after it has passed through the flea.

Remember there is never only one flea! If you see one, you can be sure there are many. And if you see flea dirt, you can safely assume there are fleas present.

How Do I Get Rid of Fleas?

Many people make the mistake of treating only the host animal, but from the above discussion of the flea’s life cycle, you know that you must get rid of the eggs, larvae, and pupae that live in the environment, as well as the adult fleas on the host animal. In the past, this meant using a “bug bomb” to thoroughly remove fleas in all of their life stages from your home and yard. However, newer prescription treatments have made the process of flea elimination so much easier.

One product, sold under the brand name of Program, is given orally once a month during flea season. The drug makes the flea eggs unable to hatch, breaking the life cycle so no new fleas are introduced. However, if there are still fleas in the area, they may infest your dog. Also, the fleas that are already on your dog will continue to bite him, prolonging the misery that goes with flea bites.

Other products, such as Advantage, Frontline Plus, K9Advantix, and Revolution, kill the adult fleas on the host animal, in many cases before they even have a chance to bite your dog. They are typically applied to the back of the dog’s neck once a month, and some even help control ticks, ear mites, and heartworm. Any flea treatment will need to be applied to all of your animals at the same time, otherwise the fleas will just hop to a different host when one becomes inhospitable. Fleas will not usually jump to humans because our body temperature is so much lower than that of our pets.

In severe cases of flea infestation, you may well have to treat your home and yard with chemicals. If you do, check the label to make sure whatever product you are using is effective against all life stages of fleas.

Ticks are parasitic arachnids.

What Are Ticks?

Plain and simple, ticks are parasites. They live on the skin of a host animal, and like the flea, must suck blood to survive. Unlike fleas, ticks are arachnids rather than insects. Other arachnids include spiders and mites. There are over 850 species of ticks, each with its own preferred area of the world to live in.

Where Do Ticks Live?

For example, the Lone Star Tick lives mostly in the Southeast, Midsouth, and coastal Northeast of the United States. The American Dog Tick lives along the West Coast, and originally along the East Coast, although it has since spread to cover the entire eastern 2/3 of the United States. Both of these ticks can cause tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, among other diseases.

The Eastern Black-Legged Tick, also known as the Deer Tick, lives near the Mississippi River, while the Western Black-Legged Tick lives along the West Coast. Both can cause Lyme disease.

What Is The Life Cycle of the Tick?

The development of a tick takes two years and requires three hosts. The adult female tick lays her eggs on the ground in the spring. In the summer, the eggs hatch into larvae, which find an animal, usually a bird or a rodent. The larvae live on this first host for a few days, then fall back onto the ground in late summer. There, they molt into the nymph stage of development and remain inactive during the winter.

The nymph then looks for another host, which may be a rodent, pet, or human. He feeds himself, then falls back to the ground, where he molts into an adult. Throughout the fall, both male and female adults seek out a host such as a deer, rodent, dog, or human. They feed on the blood of the host and mate, then fall back to the ground where the male dies. The female lives through the winter on the ground, then drops her eggs in the spring.

Why Are Ticks A Problem?

Most of us have become aware of the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme Disease that ticks can cause in humans. In dogs, however, the bigger dangers are tularemia, a disease that destroys the immune system, and Haemobartonellosis, a disease that destroys red blood cells.

How Do I Get Rid of Ticks?

The best way to get rid of ticks is to get rid of the environment in which they like to breed. Clear your yard of leaves, brush, and tall grass to keep ticks under control. Also, keep wild rodents, deer, and other animals out of your yard, as they may be harboring ticks.

If you like to take your dog for walks in areas where ticks may live, you must check your dog carefully for ticks when you come home. If you do find a tick, use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick right where his mouth parts are attached to your dog’s skin. Pull firmly without twisting to dislodge the tick, then drop him in a jar of alcohol to kill him. Clean the area around the tick bite and apply a small amount of antibiotic ointment. Ticks will not back out when you burn their butts with matches, and they will not be smothered by applying petroleum jelly around the area. Also, they are not killed by being flushed down the toilet.

To help prevent ticks from latching onto your dog, there are many preventatives available both with and without a prescription. Look for DEET as the primary ingredient for tick protection.

How Can I Reduce Mosquitoes?

In many municipalities, the government sprays for mosquitoes several times during the summer months. However, you must also do your part by eliminating any places where rain water pools, which is where mosquitoes lay their eggs. If you have a pond, keep the water aerated to disturb the surface tension, making it inhospitable to the eggs.

Why Are Mosquitoes A Problem?

Other than just being annoying, mosquitoes have the distinction of being carriers for heartworm. Please see the separate doggie den article on heartworm for a thorough discussion of the mosquito lifecycle and how to prevent heartworm.


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This product is safe for dogs, less so for cats. Several of the ingdireents can cause dermatitis or liver damage in cats, and overapplying to dogs is unnecessary and can cause some dogs temporary distress due to the intense smell which does begin to fade after several hours. As far as people go, everyone in our family actually likes the smell (cinnamon, cummin, etc.) Our dog smelled like a giant cinnamon roll for about 12 hours, then the scent faded to near invisibility. The main dispersal agent is a very safe ingredient commonly used in moisturizers and lotions for humans. If you apply this sparingly (about half of the recommended amount, which we have found to be overkill) two to three days after your dog's bath, you should find that fleas and ticks are nonexistent on your pet. We used Frontline and Advantage for a few years, even though we have a chemist in the family who was greatly distressed over the toxic ingdireents in those products ESPECIALLY the inert' ones! Our dogs had gasping episodes, rashes and flaking, diarrhea, and other symptoms that are associated with long-term use of both products. Do your research! Dig deep the parent companies don't want people to think of their products as pesticides', but highly toxic chemicals they are (not medicines' as Betty White refers to them on a commercial), and they in fact are absorbed through the skin and lungs by not only your pet, but by everyone in your home. Four months after discontinuing those products, our dogs began to recover. We began using Nature's Guardian as an alternative, and found it to be more effective than the others! We live in an area full of fat and spunky deer ticks, and even Advantage and Frontine did not discourage them. Nature's Defense did. The missing star in my review is for the overly large recommended dose- we use about a third of that and have full protection. Also, the scent is very strong, and may bother some dogs and people for a couple days. What we do now is spinkle a drop of rosemary, peppermint, and lemon essential oils on our dogs' collars every two weeks, and rinse them with apple cidar vinegar after their baths. Also, a tiny dose of garlic twice a week (be careful overuse of garlic can cause anemia in dogs) mixed into their food serves as an additional offense to keep fleas at bay. About every four weeks during spring and summer, we add a LIGHT touch of Nature's Defense to the mix. Whatever you decide, please really do your homework before applying TopSpot, Frontline, or Advantage to your precious animal. They are far more dangerous than is let on to the general public. Long term toxicity studies are just beginning, and the early evidence is heartbreaking. I know that they seem effective, and are tempting because they require so little effort on the part of pet owners, but there are more effective and safer alternatives, if you are willing to take a few minutes every couple of weeks. Cat owners avoid Nature's Defense until they remove the ingdireents that are toxic to cats. Or better yet, research non-toxic flea control for cats and mix your own.
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