A year-round problem, blood-sucking parasites like fleas and ticks can transmit diseases to humans and animals. Arm yourself with knowledge about the diseases these pests carry and the best way to treat and prevent them.
Adult fleas (the fleas you can see) make up only 5 percent of the total flea population in an environment. So, if you see a flea, there are many more in various life stages waiting to become adults so they can feed on your pets and human family members.
Fleas are the leading cause of itchy, miserable pets. When a flea bites, a small amount of saliva is left in its victim. Many dogs and cats are allergic to this saliva—a condition called flea allergy dermatitis (FAD)—and even a single flea bite can cause several days of itching in sensitive pets. Pets with FAD often experience itching and hair loss around the hind end and legs. Treatment includes flea preventives and environmental control, but severe cases may require veterinary intervention.
Fleas can carry a number of diseases, including:
- Tapeworms — Fleas are the intermediate host for cat and dog tapeworms. When a pet grooms or uses her teeth to scratch an itch, the flea is ingested, and the tapeworm hatches. Signs of a tapeworm infection are typically mild but can be identified by the egg sacs, which look like small grains of rice, that are present in the feces or around the rectum. Pets infected with tapeworms will be dewormed and placed on regular flea preventives.
- Anemia — Animals, especially those who are young, can develop anemia from heavy flea infestation. In severe cases, a blood transfusion may be required.
- Murine typhus — Murine typhus, a disease that can be spread to humans, can cause fever, headaches, chills, skin rashes, and occasionally kidney or nervous system problems.
There are many different species of ticks, and the ticks found in North Carolina can transmit these diseases:
- Ehrlichiosis — An infection from a rickettsial bacteria transmitted through the bite of the brown dog tick, ehrlichiosis causes acute symptoms 1 to 3 weeks after infection that include fever, bleeding, swollen lymph nodes, and edema. Symptoms of chronic infection include weight loss, anemia, bleeding, swollen lymph nodes, difficulty breathing, increased thirst and urination, coughing, decreased blood cell levels, and even death. Supportive treatment and a long course of antibiotics will be needed to address the symptoms and treat the infection.
- Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI) — Often called “southern Lyme,” southern tick-associated rash illness is transmitted by the lone star tick. STARI causes a rash in the area around the bite and can be accompanied by fatigue, headache, fever, and muscle pains approximately 6 days after the bite. Symptoms resolve with antibiotic therapy.
- Tularemia — Tularemia affects animals and humans. When transmission occurs through a tick bite, symptoms will often include ulceration around the bite site and swelling of lymph nodes. Prognosis is good with antibiotic therapy, but untreated disease can result in death.
- Tick paralysis — Tick paralysis is not caused by an infection, but rather a toxin produced by a female American dog tick after prolonged attachment (5 to 7 days). The disease begins as a weakness in the hind legs that progresses to paralysis, which moves up the body, and can cause respiratory muscle paralysis and death within hours. Removal of the tick reverses all symptoms, but care must be taken to remove the entire tick.
- Babesia — Babisiosis is a protozoal infection acquired through tick bites that attacks red blood cells. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and are related to the degree of red blood cell destruction. Treatment options are limited, and prognosis is generally guarded.
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever — Dogs are highly susceptible to this disease, and human transmission can occur through tick bites or contact with infected tick fluid, such as when removing the tick from an animal. Symptoms of infection include high fever, loss of appetite, swollen lymph nodes, joint pain, coughing or trouble breathing, abdominal pain, and swelling of the face and limbs. Prognosis is good when treated with antibiotics, but Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be fatal without treatment.
- Lyme disease — Lyme disease can be transmitted to humans and animals. It is caused by a bacteria transmitted by the black-legged tick. Many infected animals show no signs of illness, but symptoms can include fever, loss of appetite, joint pain, swollen lymph nodes, and lethargy. Prognosis is good when treated with antibiotics, but untreated disease can damage the kidneys, nervous system, and heart and eventually lead to death.
Preventing fleas and ticks
With so many flea and tick preventatives on the market, it can be difficult to choose the best one for your pet. Do not purchase flea and tick preventives over the counter at a pet store without first consulting our veterinary team. Not all products are effective, and some can even be dangerous for different species and breeds. Never give your cat a canine flea and tick preventative, which could result in death.
Don’t let these creepy crawly pests cause a problem for you or your furry companions. Chat with our veterinary health care team about flea and tick prevention today.