Where fleas and ticks come from, how to prevent them on people and pets, and other FAQs

Dog lying on a couch

It’s the time of year when we start digging in gardens, playing catch in the park and hitting the trails. It’s also the time when fleas and ticks most come to mind. But did you know both parasites present risk no matter the season? In fact, fleas can easily spend winter months in homes where they to find good animal hosts, and certain ticks can become active when the temperature is as low as 40 degrees.

Read below for more answers to common questions about these creepy crawlers and how to prevent them from taking up shop on you or your pet and in your home.

How can I prevent fleas and ticks on my pets?

Fleas and ticks: Preventive medications can prevent both fleas and ticks from settling on pets, and they come in many forms, such as collars, topical liquids and oral medications. They’re sometimes combined, but not always, so make sure the medication you use is effective for both pests.

Only use products prescribed by your veterinarian. Over-the-counter products can be toxic to some pets or simply inefficient and a waste of money.

Ticks: It’s also important to regularly check for ticks on your pet, ideally whenever it returns indoors after spending time outdoors. (A lint roller can be useful for detecting ticks.) It’s important to note that ticks can also be a problem for horses and cattle. As with dogs and cats, preventive treatments are available, and they should be regularly checked for ticks.

Where are fleas and ticks coming from? Can they be found in my yard?

Fleas: Fleas must have a host animal to survive, so it depends on the type of flea and the geographic area. They often jump off wildlife into the environment, then onto our pets and into our homes.

Further, fleas can take a ride into homes and onto pets by jumping onto our socks, shoes or pants while we’re out hiking or even walking through the yard. In homes, flea larvae can burrow deep into fabrics, bedding, carpeting, baseboards, between slats of wooden flooring, and elsewhere.

Ticks: It’s a common misconception that ticks live only in the wild or wooded areas. Ticks live on ground vegetation, and a majority of tick encounters happen in our yards or close to home while we’re doing routine activities and likely have our guards down. They also can hide in leaf piles, rock piles and wood piles that attract rodents that can be hosts to ticks.

What danger do fleas and ticks pose? To people? To animals?

Fleas: Fleas can easily spread disease, such as plagues, including bubonic plague, which is still regularly found the southwestern United States. Other human diseases are flea-borne (murine) typhus and cat-scratch disease. In dogs and cats, fleas can spread tapeworm, bartonella and plague as well. Pets can also become infected with certain bloodborne pathogens. Even without carrying disease, fleas can cause anemia and skin infections just by their generally parasitic nature.

Ticks: Tick-borne diseases cause chronic, debilitating illness and even loss of life in people and pets, and its possible to become infected with more than one of these illnesses. Some of the more common illnesses are Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis. Less common are Powassan virus, babesiosis and Heartland virus disease. There are often effective treatment options, including antibiotics. Outcomes are generally better the quicker an illness is found. If symptoms arise in the 60 days after a bite, it’s crucial that you get treatment right away.

What to do when you find a tick on yourself

How can I protect myself and my home?

Fleas and ticks: First and foremost, use preventive treatment on your pets — even indoor-only pets. Outside your home, eliminate those brush, leaf piles, rock piles and wood piles that could harbor wild animals.

Ticks:

  • Perform tick checks. If you discover an embedded tick, use tweezers to pull it straight out as best you can. Then wash the area with soap and water.
  • Embrace “tick fashion.” Wear clothes that expose as little skin as possible, such as long-sleeved shirts tucked into pants and pants tucked into socks. Light-colored clothing will help you more easily spot any stowaways.
  • Use insect repellent. Products that contain the chemical ingredient DEET are ideal. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has tested a wide variety of effective products, including a natural plant-based product.
  • Tick-proof your clothes and belongings. Use a spray-on insecticide like permethrin, which lasts through several washings.
  • Create a safe zone in your yard. Build a barrier, such as rock or mulch, between recreation areas and vegetation. Place playsets in sunny areas away from trees and brush.

What are signs of fleas and ticks?

Fleas: Within the fur or hair of animals, you’ll see “flea dirt” (flea poop). If you part the fur, you may be able to see the fleas themselves scurrying throughout the haircoat. Further, itchiness caused by fleas causes animals to chew at themselves, so you could see hair loss in certain areas (typically along the rump, back legs and tail base in dogs) and sometimes skin infections caused by the chewing. If fleas are on a pet that spends any time indoors, assume they’re also in the home.

Ticks: On people, ticks can be visible, but they can hide in hair or in unseen places like the underarms and backs of knees or between toes. They can be harder to spot in the fur of pets; be sure to look under the tail, near the ears or head and between toes. If you find one, keep the tick and monitor for symptoms for 60 days. You can submerge a tick in alcohol and place it in a sealed bag or other container to hang onto it for identification later.

How are problems diagnosed and treated?

Fleas: Fleas are diagnosed on pets with a physical exam and history, and are generally assumed to be the cause of itchiness. Your vet will prescribe flea prevention medication for all animals in the home and any additional medications needed for secondary diseases. Beyond that, the majority of treatment is cleaning up the environment and time. The flea life cycle is at least three weeks, so you’ll want to regularly clean your house floor to ceiling for several months. Vacuum all floors (hardwood or carpeted) and furniture and launder anything you can, including bedding. (Even if your pet has not been in a bed, the fleas likely are there.)

Ticks: If you find a tick, mark 60 days on your calendar and watch for symptoms. In people, monitor for fever, headache, joint pain, muscle aches, fatigue or a rash. Watch pets for fever, loss of appetite, stiffness, swollen joints, a lame leg, lethargy, and diarrhea or vomiting. If you experience symptoms yourself, consult a health care provider as soon as possible. If you notice symptoms in a pet, get to the veterinarian, who can test for pathogen exposure.

For both pets and people, it’s critically important to have the tick identified to help with diagnoses, because different ticks carry different pathogens. Save and photograph any ticks you remove and use an app or contact a local health department to identify the tick. Or, starting this summer, you’ll be able to contact the new tick testing lab at Ohio State University.

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