There is hardly anything more distressing to a dog owner than to see a blood-sucking parasite attached to his beloved pup. Unfortunately, ticks and fleas are a fairly common problem in warm-blooded mammals, especially in warmer climates, and dogs that have been bitten by these small parasites can suffer from a variety of illnesses if left untreated.
Prevention is key for flea and tick control, though many effective treatments are available—both over the counter and prescription. This article will discuss how to remove a tick from your dog, flea and tick prevention and treatment for Fido, how to recognize signs that your dog may be affected by these pests, and how to recognize serious illnesses caused by these tiny creatures.
How to tell if your dog has ticks or fleas
Fortunately, both fleas and ticks are visible to the human eye. Unfortunately, they are rather small and often go unnoticed, especially on dogs that have thick, dark coats that can camouflage these bloodsuckers. Familiarize yourself with the below symptoms that your pup may display if he has ticks or fleas:
Dogs that have been bitten by a tick may act totally normal and be unaware that it is even there. When ticks first attach to the skin, they are very small (about the size of a pin head), but will gradually become engorged and can even reach the size of a grape. If you notice any variations in your dog’s coat, like small bumps under the fur, be sure to check for ticks. These creatures are typically dark brown or black, have eight legs, and will most likely be firmly attached to the dog’s skin.
If your dog is infested with ticks, it will probably be noticeable (especially if your pup has a short coat). Dogs that have several ticks may lose their appetite, act lethargic, or even seem depressed, so if you notice your pup’s behavior has changed, be sure to perform a check. You should also consider reading up on tick collars, how they work, and which one would be best for your dog.
The telltale sign of a flea infestation on a dog is excessive scratching and licking, particularly in areas where fleas are most likely to camp out: the belly, head, armpits, groin, and the base of the tail. However, be warned that not every dog with fleas scratches: only dogs that are allergic to flea saliva will experience a reaction. But if you notice your dog scratching more than usual, developing “hot spots” (which are moist, red sores), losing hair in patches, or general irritability or restlessness, take a look at your dog’s skin.
Fleas hide underneath the fur and often leave behind “flea dirt” on the skin, which is actually not dirt but rather flea feces. To determine if the black specs on your dog’s skin is flea dirt as opposed to regular dirt, wipe a little onto a paper towel and add a little water. Flea feces are nothing more than digested blood, so if the water turns the “dirt” a red/brown color, it is probably from fleas.
Fleas hardly ever appear solo on a dog. Usually there are many, and the congregation makes them easier to spot. Fleas have extraordinarily long hind legs for jumping, so you may notice the fleas leaping all over your dog’s fur. Keep in mind that every female flea will eventually lay eggs on your dog, and the eggs laid on a dog in around your home can easily total into the thousands! Since a flea’s life cycle from an egg to embryo to adult can happen in few short weeks, be sure to read on to find out how to nip this problem in the bud!
If your dog already has fleas or ticks, be sure that he is completely free from them before you start any preventative measures, otherwise you’ll just be taking two steps forward and one step back. There are many popular methods to aid your pup, but the best flea and tick treatment for dogs is prevention of these parasites. Prevention options can include oral medication (both prescription and over the counter), topical creams and oils, and collars.
There are also many steps you can take to clean your dog’s environment—both indoors and outdoors—from these pests:
- Prescription pills. Since it is imperative that dogs be on a monthly regimen of heartworm prevention, many owners opt to choose a brand of medication that also prevents flea eggs from hatching, thus breaking the life cycle of the flea. There are also many standalone prescriptions that are taken alongside of heartworm pills that kill different types of ticks and fleas. Most of these prescriptions work by inhibiting the growth the egg, or simply by killing the adult parasite.
- Topical medication. These oil-type medicines do not require a prescription and are administered once a month by placing an applicator in between your dog’s shoulder blades. The medicine is dispersed through your dog’s coat and works by killing the larvae and egg of fleas (and sometimes ticks). Different medications do different things: some only kill eggs, some only kill the adult, while others are for only fleas and not ticks. Be sure to read the label in its entirely (including the warnings about the age and size of your dog) before purchase.
- Flea and tick collars. These simple collars use many of the same active ingredients as topical and oral flea and tick medications, but can stay active for up to seven months! These collars are popular choices if your dog spends a lot of time outdoors or has a long coat, which makes parasites harder to see. Most collars are water resistant and work by continually releasing the medication that kills ticks, fleas, and their larvae.
- Holistic options. If you are hesitant to use chemical treatments on your dog (which can have severe side effects), try rubbing citrus juice on your dog’s fur. This natural repellent is safe and will make your pet’s coat smell great! There are also essential oils like rose geranium oil, which can be applied directly to your dog’s collar to repel ticks. And since fleas cannot hold onto your dog’s actual fur, they will quickly drown if put into water, so throw Rover in the tub and give him a good scrub!
If you’d like to learn more about keeping these pests off your dog, you should definitely read our article on flea and tick control.
Treating your dog
If your dog already has fleas and ticks on his body, your first priority should be removing them quickly and effectively (be sure to read below for detailed instructions on removing ticks). For fleas, removing the adults can be as simple as giving your dog a warm bath. The fleas will quickly drown, and then you can use a topical medication to kill off any remaining eggs or larvae.
Be sure to examine your dog’s skin frequently to be sure no fleas remain. Additionally, try using a flea comb that will aid in removing fleas. These combs have very fine teeth that will drag fleas out of your pup’s fur. For a severe infestation, however, you may need to visit a professional groomer.
While you may incur an extra fee for a flea bath or extensive tick removal, they will have the necessary tools, medicated shampoos, and special combs and brush to get your pup feeling his best. Of course, if your dog has a severe infestation of either ticks or fleas, a trip to a licensed veterinarian is in order. He or she can best advise you to the best treatment options depending on the severity of your dog’s case, and will also examine your dog for signs of infection or illness.
Treating your home and yard
If you dog has fleas or ticks on his body, rest assured that they are probably in your home as well. Follow the below recommendations to keep your home free from parasites.
- Wash pet’s bedding once a week. Fleas and ticks can be active year round depending on what part of the country you live in, but in most areas, springtime is the season when dogs are affected the worst. Be sure to wash your bed’s bedding at least once a week.
- Vacuum often. Fleas are notorious for jumping yards at a time, and they can easily find their way into your carpets and drapes. In fact, some estimate that the fleas you find on your dog are only a fraction of the population—with the rest living in the rugs, carpets, and upholstery of your home!
Vacuum often and change out carpet bags frequently, especially if your dog has had fleas recently. You can also purchase specially formulated sprays that kill fleas and ticks for up to 2 weeks at a time. Of course, if you have young children, be weary of using chemicals in your home.
- Keep the backyard mowed. If your dog spends a lot of time outdoors, be sure that your backyard is not hospital to ticks and fleas. Ticks generally camp out of the ends of long grass, waiting to be picked up by animals that walk past. Keep grass short and bushes trimmed enough that ticks will go looking for a better stakeout elsewhere. Also, make checking Fido for ticks a habit when he comes indoors so he doesn’t spread parasites into your home.
- Treat your yard. If your dog has recently been infested with ticks and fleas, look into yard spray that attaches to your garden hose that is then sprayed on your patio and grass. Keep in mind that these sprays are not formulated for animal use, so be sure to let the solution dry before you let your dog outside.
- Check yourself and family members. While ticks and fleas prefer dogs to people, (and they are more easily concealed on our furry friends), they can certainly make their homes on humans as well. If you have a large number of these parasites on your pup, be sure to check your scalp, behind the ears, and even between your toes!
How to remove a tick?
In the past, veterinarians and other medical professionals advised people to do a number of different things to effectively remove ticks. However, methods such as placing a lit match on the tick, painting it with fingernail polish, or submerging it in some other substance are not very effective. The most important aspect is to remove the entire tick (including the head).
Go ahead and invest in a pair of quality tweezers or a special tick-removing tool just for this use, and also be sure to have some latex gloves on hand. Ticks can transmit disease very easily, and it is important to protect yourself as well as your furry friend. To begin, locate the tick(s), and spread your dog’s fur apart with one hand so the entire body is exposed.
Now, with the other hand, place the tweezers around the tick’s head as close to the skin as possible, and gently, but firmly, pull the tick straight out. Be careful not to pull it away to the side, as this may cause breakage and leave the tick’s head (and mouthparts) underneath your dog’s skin. Ticks are fairly difficult to kill, so just throwing it in the trash won’t do. Flush it down the toilet, or better yet, keep it in a jar filled with rubbing alcohol. Your vet may need to test it for disease if your dog falls ill, and having the culprit will make the process much easier.
Illnesses caused by fleas and ticks
Not only are bloodsucking parasites like ticks and fleas severely discomforting to your dog, they can cause serious diseases as well. Both of these creatures feed off of blood, and resulting infections, if left untreated, can lead to severe health problems. Familiarize yourself with the following symptoms s so you can be sure to recognize these illnesses in your dog:
- Lyme disease. This serious disease not only affects canines, but humans as well. Typically transmitted by ticks, Lyme disease is a bacteria that is transmitted to the host when the tick bites into the skin. Although most prevalent in the northeastern area of the United States, Lyme disease is also found in the south and Midwest.
Symptoms can sometimes not appear until several months after your dog has been bitten, but telltale signs of Lyme disease in dogs include fever, swollen lymph nodes, loss of appetite, and general lethargy. Your vet can test for the disease, and treatment with antibiotics is usually very successful. Luckily, transmission only occurs after the tick has been attached to the host after at least 48 hours, so if you find and remove the tick quickly, your dog should be safe. If you’d like to learn more about this disease and what to look for, first read our article on lyme disease in dogs.
- Fleabite anemia. This serious condition occurs when your dog has so many fleabites that he has lost a significant amount of blood. Anemia can be fatal, and unfortunately many owners are unaware that fleas ever infested their dog because some dogs never scratch or bite themselves (if they are not allergic to the flea saliva). Young and elderly dogs are most susceptible, but seek veterinarian care at once if you suspect your dog has this condition.
Symptoms include pale gums and lethargy. Treatment is key and can include iron supplements, or in severe cases, a blood transfusion.
- Flea-allergy dermatitis. Although not as severe as Lyme Disease or Fleabite Anemia, dermatitis caused by fleas is the most common dermatology problem of dogs in the U.S. and can lead to infection in your dog. Dogs with flea-allergy dermatitis are allergic to the saliva of a flea, and they are left in serious discomfort from scratching and biting themselves for relief. If left untreated, dermatitis can lead to hair loss, hot spots, and even neurotic behavior.
Your vet can prescribe medicated shampoos, steroids, and antihistamines to calm your dog’s skin, and then you can begin a regimen of flea prevention.
- Tapeworms are caused when a dog ingests an infected flea, which is fairly common in dogs that lick and bite themselves for relief from fleabites. Tapeworms can grow up to 28 inches long and live in the dog’s intestines: feeding and growing. Untreated tapeworms can cause your dog to become seriously ill and lose weight even though he is eating normally.
Prevention of fleas on your dog is key for inhibiting tapeworms, although there are many prescription drugs that can treat tapeworms. These de-worming medicines come in shot and pill form and works by dissolving the worms.
Ticks and fleas are unwelcome guests in our home, and certainly on our pets. And even though these parasites are most common in warm weather, it is vital to do prevention year-round.
Keeping your dog indoors is the best way to prevent him from becoming infested, and performing daily checks of his coat and fur during warm weather is the easiest (and cheapest) way to keep him happy and healthy. Canines can develop serious illnesses and discomfort from fleas and ticks, and it is our responsibility as pet owners to take flea and tick prevention for dogs seriously and use preventative measures to ward off these dangerous parasites.