The most common external parasites that can infest dogs are fleas and ticks. Parasites are organisms that survive by living off other life forms, can spread disease and even help transmit other parasites. For instance, fleas are instrumental in spreading tapeworms, an internal parasite. Ingesting fleas is the main cause of tapeworm in dogs and cats. Some animals eat 50 to 90 percent of the fleas on their body. As you can see, keeping your dog free of fleas and ticks is an essential part of good health care for your dog and yourself.
Fleas on Dogs
There are more than 2,000 known species and subspecies of flea in the world. One flea species, however, accounts for almost all the fleas found on dogs and cats in the United States. It is known as the cat flea.
Fleas may well be the most aggravating external parasite a dog will encounter. Undisturbed, a flea can live on a dog for more than 100 days. Only dogs who live in extreme locales—sunny, arid climes or excessively cold environments — are likely to escape the exasperating itch-scratch cycle brought on by flea bites. Some dogs are so sensitive to flea saliva — the substance that causes the itch — a single bite can send them into a fit of biting and scratching at the itchy area. This extreme sensitivity is called flea allergy dermatitis.
Fleas don’t actually live on dogs—they just hop on for a blood meal when they want to feed—so a little detective work is necessary to establish their presence.
- Stand your dog on a white towel or piece of paper, and run a brush or comb through his coat.
- If small black flecks fall onto the white area, wet them to see if they turn red.
- Any flecks that turn red are so-called flea dirt. In other words, it’s the blood the flea excretes after feeding on your dog.
To rid your dog of fleas, talk to your veterinarian. There are so many good flea control products available now that there’s really no need for any dog to suffer the agony of flea bites. These products can be topical (applied to the dog’s skin) or given in pill form. Some of the products control ticks and other parasites as well.
The best product for your dog depends on both the climate in your area and the lifestyle of your dog. A dog who spends a lot of time outdoors or playing in water may need a different product than that used for a dog who spends most of his time in the home or show ring. Note: Never use topical flea control made for dogs on cats.
To eradicate fleas from the home, you need to treat:
- the dog
- the indoor living areas
- and the yard
You must do this all at the same time using appropriate flea products for each. For instance, never use a premise spray meant for use around the house on your dog. And check with your veterinarian to make sure you aren’t using chemicals that could be toxic when combined.
Treat the home and yard for fleas, being sure to apply the flea-control product in such areas as along the baseboards, around the perimeter of the yard and home, and under and around decks and patios. Clear the yard of leaves and other debris. If you use an exterminator, make sure the product employed is safe for use around pets. Don’t forget to treat the inside of the car and the doghouse and kennel area for fleas.
Generally, the least toxic flea products for use on pets or in the home and yard are those containing pyrethrins or pyrethroids, which are fast acting but don’t remain long in the environment. Products that are more powerful, more long-lasting and more toxic include those containing chemicals called cholinesterase inhibitors, sold under such names as carbaryl, diazinon, Sevin, Dursban, fenthion, and malathion. Use them sparingly, if at all.
Look for premise sprays that contain not only an insecticide to kill adult fleas but also an insect growth regulator (IGR). These chemicals, which go by the names methoprene or pyriproxyfen, work by preventing flea eggs from hatching and larval fleas from reaching adulthood. Premise sprays can be directed toward specific areas. Foggers dissipate in the room.
Bathe the dog with a good flea-control shampoo made for dogs. Leave it on for at least 10 minutes before rinsing. Shampoos that contain a natural insecticide called d-limonene are safe and effective for puppies and older dogs. After bathing, apply the topical product recommended by your veterinarian.
Ticks on Dogs
Just as nasty as fleas on dogs are ticks on dogs. Ticks belong to the arachnid family and are related to spiders. They have brown or black tear-shaped bodies with eight legs. An adult female tick is about the size of a poppy seed or a sesame seed, although ticks that are fat with blood can be bigger, up to the size of a pencil eraser. The two ticks most commonly found on dogs are the brown dog tick and the American dog tick, but the deer tick and the western black-legged tick also feed on dogs.
Using their sharp mouthpieces, ticks attach themselves to a dog’s skin, usually around the dog’s head, neck, ears or feet and make a meal of the dog’s blood. That’s bad enough, but certain ticks also transmit Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. A large number of ticks feeding off a single dog can cause severe anemia or tick paralysis.
Tick season is spring and summer, but any time your dog is outdoors or in a heavily wooded area, you should examine him for ticks. Don’t touch the tick with your bare hands. The spirochete that causes Lyme disease can enter through the skin. Wear gloves and part the dog’s coat to look down close to the skin. Ticks can be easy to miss, especially on dark-colored dogs.
To remove a tick:
- Grasp the tick at the head with tweezers or forceps.
- Pull slowly but firmly to dislodge it without leaving any part of it behind.
- After the tick is removed, clean the dog’s bite site with rubbing alcohol, and apply a topical antibiotic ointment.
- Do not hold a lit match to the tick or attempt to smother the tick with nail polish, petroleum jelly, kerosene or gasoline.
Many products help kill or repel ticks, and a dog can be vaccinated for Lyme disease if your veterinarian thinks the risk of infection warrants it. Usually, the vaccine is recommended if there is a high incidence of Lyme disease in the area or if a dog’s lifestyle puts him at risk.
Excerpt from the book, The Original Dog Bible, edited by Kristin Mehus-Roe, with permission from its publisher, BowTie Press. Purchase The Original Dog Bible here.