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Ounce-for-ounce, few creatures can inflict more discomfort than fleas. These tiny pests can hop onto your dog unobserved to feed on its blood and lay eggs, producing yet another generation. Fleas can make life miserable for people and dogs alike, disrupting your household with a nasty cycle of biting and scratching and in some pets causing flea allergy dermatitis or anemia.

Fleas that live on your pet easily spread to your house or yard and vice versa, so it's important to treat both your pet and your environment. Wildlife can also bring fleas into your area, so just because your dog doesn't spend much time outside or time around other dogs doesn't mean that they won't pick up fleas. If there is one flea found on your pet, you can count on thousands more being in your home. Flea eggs, larvae and pupae can hide in a number of flea-friendly locations around your home like furniture, carpeting and shaded areas. These are the same places your dog spends most of its time.


Fleas are insects. There are over 2,000 species of fleas throughout the world. Their last pair of legs are much larger than their other four legs which makes them fantastic jumpers. The record high jump for a flea is over 1 foot. That is quite an accomplishment for an insect that is only 2-8mm long. Both male and female fleas feed on the blood of animals. They can live many months without a meal. There are four stages of development: eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults. One female flea can produce 400-1000 eggs in her lifetime. A flea lifetime can range from several months to 2 years depending on the species - plenty of time to be mighty irritating to you and your pet. The entire life cycle from eggs to adult takes about 15 days. However, the pupae can remain dormant under unfavorable conditions (like cold weather) and extend that cycle to over 1 year. This is important information when you are planning flea control. This is why flea control should be a year round commitment.

Flea Facts

  • One flea can bite a pet 400 times a day, and can consume more than its body weight of your pet's blood
  • Eggs can hatch within 2 days under optimal conditions
  • Larvae feed on blood in adult feces and other organic debris
  • Six or more generations of fleas are possible per season
  • Adults can survive without a blood meal for 9 months
  • 80-90% of the flea life cycle occurs in the environment, not on the animal
  • Adult fleas, which are attracted to light, will lay eggs after taking a blood meal.
  • The eggs then roll off the animal and into the environment- which constitute ~50% of the total flea population.
  • The pupae stage is the only stage that cannot be killed
  • Flea allergy is the 2nd most itchy condition in dogs
  • No product on the market repels fleas
  • Frontline is the #1 flea protection/preventative in the US

Flea Infestation Warning Signs

Signs of flea infestation may include: adult fleas on your pet or in your home, flea eggs on your pet's coat (white oval shapes the size of table salt crystals), flea excrement or "flea dirt" on your pet's skin or in it's bed (dark specks that look like dirt that will turn red when wet), excessive scratching, or irritated skin along the backs of the pet's thighs or above the tail area. If your dog is experiencing agitation and excessive scratching it may be infested with fleas. Look for live fleas or flea dirt, and bring them in for a thorough veterinary examination.

Here are two easy ways to check for flea dirt:
1. Use a metal flea comb. Run the comb over your dog, making sure the comb reaches the skin through the coat. If you see black specks on the comb when you've finished, it could be flea dirt.
2. Use a white paper towel. Place the paper towel beneath your dog and rub your hands across its fur. If black specks appear on the towel, they may be flea dirt. Wet the paper towel and smear the black specks. If they change to a red or rusty color it is flea dirt.

How Fleas Affect Dogs

Fleas don't just make your dog itchy - they may actually make it ill. 

Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD) - Your dog may develop FAD as a reaction to the small amount of saliva fleas leave in the skin after biting an animal. Dogs suffering from FAD scratch and bite excessively around the tail, groin, or backside and may also develop scabs or bumps on the neck or back.

Anemia - Puppies, older dogs, and dogs with pre-existing illnesses may be susceptible to flea-bite-induced anemia. Symptoms include pale gums, weakness and lethargy.     

Flea-Bite-Related Illnesses

There are several diseases and parasites that fleas can transmit.

Tapeworm - Your pet is infected with tapeworms by ingesting a flea or by hunting and eating wildlife or rodents infested with fleas, tapeworms or tapeworm eggs. These parasites can be seen in the feces, around the anal area, or dried up and stuck in the hair of your pet or in their bedding. The live worms are white, segmented and flat. The segments, when dried, look like small golden colored grains of rice. These worms can cause debilitation, weight loss and vomiting so they should be treated when diagnosed. 

Hemobartonellosis (also known as Feline Infectious Anemia, or Feline Hemotropic Mycoplasmosis). This disease can range from no clinical signs to mild anemia, to severe life threatening anemia and death. Some cats, after recovering from the disease, become life time carriers of this disease. There have not been any reported cases of Hemobartonellosis in people. This disease is transmitted by both fleas and ticks.

Plague - Three forms are seen in cats and people: bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic plague. Bubonic is the most common in cats and is associated with high fever, dehydration and enlarged lymph nodes. Spread to the lungs through the bloodstream is common in people. About 14% of all human plaque cases in the United States are fatal.

Cat Scratch Disease - Cats usually have no clinical signs. Infected people may develop a pustule at the site of infection, a low-grade fever and a general "not well" feeling may also be present.


Ticks are not insects. They are Arachnids; just like spiders and mites. The adult tick has 8 legs. There are approximately 850 species of ticks. There are two families of ticks: hard ticks and soft ticks.  Ticks require 1, 2 or 3 hosts to complete their four stage (eggs, larvae, nymph, adult) life cycle. Most ticks are 3 host ticks meaning that they feed on 3 different hosts during their development. What do ticks eat? Blood and only blood. Almost any blood will do. Except for eggs, each stage requires a blood meal to progress to the next stage. One female tick can lay from 1000-6000 eggs in her lifetime. The lifetime of a tick can range from less than 1 year to up to several years depending on the species of the tick. Ticks transmit the biggest variety of pathogens of any other blood sucking arthropod. The diseases that ticks transmit include bacteria, rickettsiae, protozoa and viruses. The tick diseases that affect our dogs and/or cats are Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, Ehrlichiosis, Hemobartonellosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, Hepatozoonosis, Cytauxzoonosis, and Tick Paralysis.

Tick Facts

  • In a recent national survey- a full two-thirds (67%) of pet owners polled were concerned about tick-related diseases with a majority concerned about ticks on their pet
  • Four major tick species are: Deer Tick/Black-Legged Tick, Brown Dog Tick, American Dog Tick and Lone Star Tick
  • Complete life cycle spans from 6 weeks to 3 years, depending on species
  • Tick populations are affected by climate and abundance of hosts
  • Some species can survive for years without feeding
  • Ticks thrive in high humidity and moderate temperatures.

How Ticks Affect Dogs

Ticks attach to dogs to feed. You might not even notice these tiny pests on your dog until the ticks have fed so much that they've become engorged. Worse yet, ticks may transmit diseases that can cause potentially serious dog-health problems. Tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever can vary in severity from mild to fatal in dogs.

Lyme disease in dogs can be characterized by fever and lameness, polyarthritis (arthritis in multiple joints) with obvious joint swelling and lethargy. This condition may be become chronic. Neurological, cardiac, kidney, and reproductive signs may also occur. Although cats can be infected, they usually have no clinical signs. People have a variety of clinical symptoms, sometimes presenting with a "bulls-eye" rash. Lyme disease in humans may be accompanied by nonspecific symptoms such as fever, fatigue, headache, muscle and joint aches. The deer tick is a vector which may carry Lyme disease.

Ehrlichiosis in dogs is typically characterized by an acute phase that may be followed by a chronic phase. Signs may include: loss of appetite, depression, stiffness, coughing, difficulty breathing, and swelling of the scrotum or limbs. Dogs can recover spontaneously or the disease may become chronic and may affect the dog's bone marrow and organs. Signs are consistent with the particular organs affected. A principal vector is the brown dog tick.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever (also called tick fever) in dogs typically affects dogs that are outdoors frequently. Signs may include: fever, loss of appetite, arthritis, coughing, difficulty breathing, and swelling of the face or extremities. Neurological and vascular signs (bruising)may also occur.  People may also have a fever. A characteristic red rash on the soles of the feet and palms of the hands can be seen in 50 to 80% of human patients. The disease is transmitted by the American dog tick. 

Tick Paralysis - Ascending paralysis can result from a tick bite, especially if the attachment site is located near the central nervous system of the host animal. Toxins injected along with tick saliva into the site are the cause. This syndrome occurs in both dogs and people.


If a tick is removed within 24 hours, the chances of it transmitting Lyme disease or other infections are much less. Removing ticks can be tricky. The illustrations (right) show how to remove a tick properly. Use fine-point tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Gently pull the tick straight out, steadily and firmly.  Do not twist and pull. Avoid squeezing the body of the tick. Squishing the tick while it is still attached to your pet may cause the toxins and bacterium to be released into your pet at a higher rate. The mouthparts are barbed like a harpoon and may break off in the skin. If they do, it is not of concern. They do not carry the bacterium and are no more harmful than a small sliver. Wash hands and the bite area with soap and water; apply an antiseptic to the bite area, which may be inflamed and swollen.

Do NOT burn the tick off with a lit match or fire.  Do NOT use alcohol or cover the tick in a substance such as nail polish or petroleum jelly to make it fall off. These methods are ineffective. Keep the tick specimen in a small container of alcohol for identification if needed.

Prevention

Flea and Tick control has come a long way since the days of flea collars, baths and smelly, toxic dips. We now have wonderful, safe, effective and long lasting products that kill, sterilize, and control fleas and ticks. You and your veterinarian should decide which products are best for you and your pet based on their lifestyle and your previous or present environmental conditions.  

Remember it is always easier to prevent fleas then to treat fleas. We recommend using a preventative from March until we get 2 hard frosts in the fall. We carry 2 products that are very effective against fleas and ticks - Frontline Plus and K-9 Advantix. When used monthly, these products kill fleas and ticks on your dog and prevent re-infestation. They are easy to use and highly effective. Research has verified that 98-100% of fleas are killed within 24 hours of application.                             

Warning - Beware of grocery store look-a-like products. They are not as safe and not as effective.

    Nine products containing concentrated permethrin are registered with the Environmental protection Agency (EPA) Their permethrin formulations are sold as flea and/or tick control products for dogs by various distributors under numerous brand names. Most are available in retail settings where veterinary advice is not available.
    Unfortunately some owners have inadvertently applied dogs-only permethrin products to their cats - resulting in numerous cases of severe illness and death. Others noticed the warning label against no use in cats but erroneously believed that a small amount of the product would be harmless.
    Adverse reactions associated with permethrin toxicosis are primarily neurological abnormalities such as muscle tremors, agitation, ataxia and seizures.
    In addition, there have been reported cases from secondary exposure via permethrin treated dogs - in these cases some cats groomed the treated dog where others either slept with the dog or were merely in the same household and in close contact.
    Hospitalization is generally required for all cats affected, including fluid and nutritional support in order to recover fully. Dermal decontamination - (bathing with a mild hand dish detergent such as Dawn or Palmolive) is also recommended immediately after realizing the product was applied to the incorrect animal, or when clinical signs of illness begin.

Additional Prevention Measures

You can limit your dog's exposure to fleas by taking a few simple steps to eliminate as many immature fleas (eggs, larvae, and pupae) as possible.

  • VACUUM frequently wherever your dog has been, especially your car, carpeted areas, and any furniture your pets climb on. (Admit it, the dog does jump up on that sofa when you're not looking!)
  • Wash your dog's bedding, blankets and other washable items regularly in the hottest water possible. Check the laundering instructions for appropriate water temperatures for your dog's washables
  • TAKE CARE OF YOUR YARD by mowing your lawn and raking up leaves, brush and clippings.

For more information or to purchase flea and tick preventative products please call the Merrick Veterinary Group at 516-379-6200.


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