Flea and tick prevention
A common part of pet ownership is dealing with these pesky critters, as it's so important to keep your pets well protected. Fleas and ticks can affect our cats and dogs at any stage of their life, and can also infest rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, mice and chickens, wildlife and humans. Their effects can range from a mild irritation to severe and possibly deadly. Keep reading for more information about fleas and ticks, how to know if your pets are affected and how to prevent these parasites.
What are fleas and why are they a problem?
Fleas are external parasites that live on the skin and survive by feeding on the blood of animals. Flea bites are irritating and painful to animals and cause damage to the skin. While some animals show no response or only respond to flea bites with occasional scratching, others are more sensitive and will scratch and bite intensely at the area, which can lead to infection.
If your pet is allergic to fleas, all it takes is one flea to feed on your pet to start the allergic reaction, causing a severe skin reaction and infection. Heavy flea infestations can also cause anaemia in very young or old pets due to blood loss.
An often unknown fact is that fleas can infect your pet with tapeworm larvae, causing a tapeworm infestation. Fleas can also carry a bacteria that causes ‘cat scratch fever’ in humans, which is a condition that can make humans very sick. They can also spread myxomatosis to rabbits which is fatal, but the risk can be reduced by controlling fleas.
Fleas are prevalent all year round, not just in summer, so prevention is always important.
How to tell if your pet has fleas
Adult fleas are tiny dark brown insects, about 1-2mm long, that appear flattened sideways and may be seen moving quickly through your pet’s fur or on their skin. Fleas do not have wings but can move between host animals and the environment by jumping.
Symptoms that your pet may have a flea infection include itching, redness of skin, scabs, bald patches and visible fleas and flea dirt. Your pet’s behaviour can be a sign of flea infestation, although this is not a reliable indicator because not all pets will scratch or appear irritated. Some cats will scratch at fleas only when they are not being observed.
Regular grooming is the best way to check whether your pet has fleas by looking for flea or flea dirt in their fur or on their skin.
What are ticks and is your pet at risk?
There are several different types of ticks in Victoria, all of which feed on the blood of your pet. Ticks not only cause irritation at the site of a bite, but can also cause severe disease, the most well-known being paralysis. Paralysis ticks are dangerous parasites that can attach to an animal, suck their blood and secrete a toxin into them. This toxin affects the nervous system leading to a number of symptoms and potentially death. Paralysis ticks are uncommon in Melbourne but something to always be aware of, particularly if travelling outside of metropolitan Melbourne.
How to tell if your pet is suffering from a tick bite
If you pet has been bitten by a tick, symptoms include;
Local irritation with redness and swelling at the site of a tick bite
Loss of coordination in the hind legs (wobbliness in the back legs) or not being able to get up
Weakness in the back legs
A change in the sound of the bark or voice
Retching, coughing (sometimes it is a moist cough), vomiting
Loss of appetite
Progressive paralysis to include the forelegs
Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
Grunting noises when breathing or any other abnormal behaviour or symptom
If venturing into bushland, it is important to check your pet for ticks. Common sites are around the head, ears, mouth, toes, however they can occur anywhere. Ticks tend to be more common in spring and summer as they prefer warm, humid climates. However this does not prevent them from still being active throughout the year.
If you find a tick gently remove it using a twist and gentle pull with tweezers (or fingers) placed close to the skin. Keep the tick to show a vet for identification if you are concerned about paralysis ticks.
How to protect your pets
Whether your pet already has fleas or you're looking to prevent them, there are many treatment options available. Your vet can give you advice about the most suitable product for your pet and how often this should be applied (such as monthly).
The treatments may can be in the form of a tablet, oral chew or spot-on applied to the skin. Flea collars or rinses kill the fleas on your pet but will not treat the environment, which is particularly important for animals who have allergic reactions to flea. For the treatments to be effective, all pets in your household will need to be treated.
If you pet has skin damage (infection, irritation, broken skin) from fleas it is important to bring them to see your vet for treatment. Dogs or cats suffering from flea allergy dermatitis may require the area to be clipped and cleaned, and need prescribed medications to reduce inflammation.
It is important to follow your vet’s advice closely and only use a product that is safe for your pet’s species; products designed for dogs can be fatal if given to cats. We do not advice buying these products from a supermarket without veterinary advice, and there is no evidence that alternative treatments, such as tea leaves or citronella, are effective against fleas.
Treat your pets and your home
For complete flea control, you must also treat the environment. Fleas can survive for months in the environment without a host animal, so it is important to break the flea life cycle. Treating the environment removes flea eggs, larvae and pupae that are already present and also prevents re-infestation. This involves weekly vacuuming of the sleeping area, floors, furniture and skirting boards and disposal of vacuum cleaner bags. Pet bedding should also be washed weekly at a high temperature, as well as outdoor kennels, runs or enclosures sprayed with an adult flea killer every week until the infestation is cleared. If there is severe infestation, you can also dust skirting boards and other crevices with insecticide powder and use surface sprays. Seek further advice from your vet if you are unsure how to safely remove fleas from your pet’s environment.