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Fleas, Ticks, Dogs and Cats: Separating the Facts from Fiction

Fleas and ticks have been around for millions of years — in fact, they were around long before humans walked on the earth. Yet despite their long history and reputation for causing discomfort and transmitting diseases, many common myths and misperceptions about fleas and ticks still exist. Not knowing some basic facts about these tiny bloodsuckers can put you and your pet at risk and even make a parasite problem worse.

Check out these common myths about fleas, ticks and pets. The facts may surprise you!

12 Common Myths About Fleas and Ticks | Diamond Pet Foods

FLEE FROM THESE COMMON FLEA MYTHS

MYTH: Indoor pets can’t get fleas.

FACT: Indoor-only pets can become infested with fleas in several ways. The number-one way fleas enter a home is on the family dog, so if your dog goes outside for potty breaks, he or she could become a host for one or more fleas. The most common type of flea in the United States infests not only cats and dogs but also rodents, ferrets, opossums, rabbits, raccoons, foxes, birds and cattle. As flea-infested wildlife pass through your yard or sleep around your home or garden, they seed the environment with flea eggs. During humid months, these eggs rapidly develop into adult fleas that your dog can pick up.

A second way fleas can enter your home is by hitchhiking on you and your clothes, another family member or friend. So, if you spend time around other pets who may have fleas, volunteer at an animal shelter or hike through a flea-infested area, you could carry home a stowaway or two without knowing it.

Finally, your indoor-only pet can pick up fleas during boarding, grooming or a trip to the veterinary clinic. That’s because most indoor-only pets aren’t truly restricted to their homes. Even indoor-only pets leave the house for an occasional veterinary or grooming appointment — unless your veterinarian and groomer make house calls.

RELATED POST: Debarking Pet Myths: Indoor Pets Can’t Get Fleas

MYTH: Homes without carpet cannot become infested with fleas.

FACT: Fleas are opportunistic, and their immature stages — eggs, larvae and pupae — are capable of hiding just about anywhere. It’s not uncommon to find immature flea life stages in the cracks between hardwood, laminate or tile floor coverings and along baseboards. They’ll also hide in your pet’s (and your!) bedding, even within or under upholstered furniture where your pet rests.

Flea Life Cycle | Diamond Pet Foods

MYTH: If you see fleas (or ticks) on your pet, the control product isn’t working.

FACT: With topically applied products, most adult fleas are killed within hours, not within several seconds or minutes as some pet owners might expect. And with orally administered flea and tick control products, fleas must feed on your pet before they are exposed to the medication.

Flea-infested environments are a constant source of new fleas, and pets who go outdoors can easily pick up newly emerged adult fleas. These recently acquired fleas may be the “live” fleas you’re seeing on your treated cat or dog. The good news is, if the flea control product was applied or given appropriately, the fleas should be dead within 24 hours.

MYTH: Fleas jump from one pet to another.

FACT: Fleas have an incredible ability to jump. According to a study published in Veterinary Parasitology, the most common flea infesting dogs and cats can jump an average distance of 8 inches and an average height of 5.2 inches. Fleas use this jumping ability to move from an environmental “hot spot” to a host — namely, your dog, cat or even you. Fleas typically don’t jump between pets unless an animal is heavily infested with fleas. Once a flea lands on a dog or cat, it depends on that pet for its survival.

MYTH: The only pets in the home that need to be treated are those with fleas.

FACT: If you want to avoid a flea infestation, all pets in the home must be treated with a flea control product. You’ll also want to treat your home environment and possibly your yard and garden. (A flea infestation means adult fleas are reproducing on your pet and all of the immature flea stages are present in the environment that your pet frequents.)

Any untreated pet can become the new home for fleas if immature fleas are present in the environment. And it’s possible that an untreated pet is the actual source of fleas. Because some pets are more sensitive to fleas than others, a pet could have fleas but not show any signs of itchiness.

MYTH: If you don’t see fleas on your pet, there isn’t a problem or the problem is solved.

FACT: Your dog or cat may not have fleas after treatment, but the adult fleas found on pets are only 5% of the flea population in your pet’s environment. The other 95% are hiding as immature stages — eggs, larvae and pupae — in the environment and still pose a risk to your pet. That’s why veterinarians recommend treating your home environment, as well as all pets in your home for more than one month. Depending on the severity of the problem, you may need to call an exterminator or use over-the-counter insecticides to treat your home and yard.

TICK OFF THESE COMMON TICK MYTHS

MYTH: Only dogs and cats that spend time in heavily wooded areas get ticks.

FACT: Ticks tend to live where the animals (hosts) they feed on live, regardless of urban, suburban or rural location. Ticks may be found in any areas of tall grass, shrubbery, brush and other plant material, particularly along animal trails or footpaths. Ticks typically don’t fall from trees to land on you or your pet, although they can climb. In fact, adult black-legged ticks, which can transmit the microorganism that causes Lyme disease, have been found up to 3 feet off of the ground waiting for a host.

Adult ticks crawl up grass blades, tall weeds or bushes, where they wait for an animal or person to walk by — a process called questing. When you or your dog brushes against them or the plants on which they’re resting, they climb aboard, find a suitable spot on the skin to attach, and feed for several hours or even several days. Once feeding is complete, ticks drop off of their host and into the environment.

Immature ticks tend to be found in leaf litter or in the layers of decomposing leaves under trees and may crawl onto a host when the debris is disturbed.

To learn more about the life cycle of ticks and how they survive to spread disease, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

MYTH: Ticks are only active in the spring and summer months.

FACT: There’s a common belief that ticks (and fleas) are exclusively a seasonal issue: They come out in warm weather and die off during cold weather. The reality is that ticks are incredibly hardy and capable of surviving surprisingly cold temperatures. Some ticks become dormant, others hide in the leaf litter of wooded and brushy areas, some move indoors, and still others spend the winter on animals. Snow cover actually insulates dormant ticks from cold temperatures, just as it does grass and other plants.

Adult black-legged ticks, the species that transmits the microorganism that causes Lyme disease, begin feeding around the time of the first frost. Adults that don’t find hosts as winter closes in will take cover under leaf litter or other plant material. During midwinter thaws, when temperatures reach higher than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, black-legged ticks can become active and have been found on plants above snow-covered ground searching for hosts.

MYTH: A tick can still transmit disease if the head breaks off in the skin.

FACT: Even if you try to very carefully remove a tick from your pet, it’s common for the mouthparts to remain embedded in your pet’s skin. (Ewww! No one really wants to think about that.) Sometimes leaving a tick’s mouthparts in the skin is unavoidable. The good news is that the tick can no longer transmit disease if its body is gone. Your pet’s body will wall off the mouthparts, and in a few days, what’s left of the tick will be expelled naturally. Applying warm compresses several times a day can help speed up the process.

While the mouthparts may cause temporary, minor inflammation, you’ll want to monitor the site for signs of infection such as redness, swelling, pus and pain. To avoid potential infection, gently clean the area with soap and water. You may also want to call your veterinarian to discuss whether you should apply a small amount of antiseptic cream or antibiotic ointment.

What you don’t want to do is dig around in your pet’s skin in an effort to remove the mouthparts. This can actually increase trauma to the skin and the risk of a local skin infection. If the site should become infected, contact your veterinarian.

MYTH: Ticks transmit disease as soon as they bite a pet.

FACT: Ticks can carry and transmit several different types of disease-causing organisms (pathogens), such as bacteria, viruses and parasites, and toxins. The good news is that not all ticks are infected and most tick bites don’t result in disease. The percentage of ticks infected with an infectious organism will vary from one location to the next, and the ability of tick species to transmit toxin that causes tick paralysis will vary with the type of tick.

The feeding time necessary for disease-causing organisms to be passed to a host varies between ticks and pathogens. Some bacteria may be transmitted with three to six hours of tick attachment, while others require more than 24 hours before transmission occurs.

Since it’s impossible to know if a tick is infected without testing it, prompt removal is key to preventing pathogen transfer to you and your pet. You’ll want to talk with your veterinarian about which tick control product is appropriate for your pet to avoid future tick bites.

MYTH: Cats don’t have tick problems because they remove ticks when they groom.

FACT: Although there’s a little bit of truth to this myth, cats usually don’t remove all ticks through grooming — despite having a really rough tongue! Many ticks produce a sticky, glue-like substance that helps them stay attached to your pet. A tick can also attach in an area of the body where your cat cannot reach to groom, like the face or ears.

Even if your cat managed to remove a feeding tick during grooming, she still could become infected with a tick-transmitted disease such as cytauxzoonosis, which can result in serious illness or even death.

MYTH: The best way to remove an attached tick is with a hot match, fingernail polish or petroleum jelly.

FACT: While these “home remedies” for removing attached ticks may or may not work, they’re actually dangerous to your pet (and you). Using a lit or hot match to detach a tick is not only ineffective, it can easily burn your pet — remember, hair is highly flammable! Fingernail polish and petroleum jelly eventually suffocate feeding ticks, but by the time ticks die, they may have passed disease-causing microorganisms to your pet.

The best way to remove an attached tick is to grasp it with tweezers as close to the skin as possible while avoiding the tick’s abdomen (or body). Gently, firmly and steadily pull on the tick until it comes out. Jerking or twisting the tick can cause the mouthparts to break off and remain in the skin.

Once the tick is removed, clean the wound with soap and water, and clean your tweezers with rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol. You can also preserve the tick in a small container of rubbing alcohol for identification. Be sure to label the container with information about the time and place where the tick bite most likely occurred.

Of course, if you’re not sure how to properly remove a tick, ask your veterinarian or a veterinary technician to show you.

SO NOW WHAT?

Many more myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about fleas, ticks and how to prevent them from infesting your dog or cat exist, such as “apple cider vinegar repels ticks,” “feeding garlic helps repel fleas, ticks and mosquitoes,” and “city pets don’t need flea and tick prevention.” (The correct answers? False, false and false!)

Now that we’ve busted the more common myths, what should you do? If you haven’t already, talk with your veterinarian about which flea and tick control product is right for your pet.

To learn more about fleas, ticks and other parasites that can affect your pet, check out the Companion Animal Parasite Council’s website, Pet Health Network or Vetstreet.com.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.

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