Flea and tick control is an important part of the routine healthcare of cats and dogs. These two common parasites can cause serious disease in our pets as well as making them itchy and miserable. They can also carry bacteria and viruses which can potentially infect humans.
By Ian Wright, partner at the Mount Veterinary practice, Fleetwood and head of ESCCAP UK & Ireland
Fleas found on UK pets are almost all cat fleas as they can infest a wide range of mammals, including, cats, dogs, ferrets and rabbits. they are wingless blood sucking insects but unlike lice, most of the flea’s life stages live off the pet in your home. Adult fleas lay eggs which fall off into bedding, furniture and carpets. These then hatch into larvae which live on flea faeces or ‘scat’ which also falls off the coat.
The larvae develop into pupae which wait for a warm host to pass by. Sensing heat and movement the adult flea emerges and jumps onto the host. People cannot act as hosts for cat fleas but can get bitten with itchy sores sometimes then developing, often below the knee. Control of flea infestations is a lengthy process as the pupae are near impossible to kill, and once established it can take months to eliminate an infestation from the home. With the right approach to treatment however, victory over the fleas in the home can be achieved. Treating the house with sprays containing insecticides and growth regulators, as well as daily vacuuming helps to speed up getting rid of an infestation. Hot washing bedding at a temperature of at least 50-60 degrees Celsius will also help to remove some of the flea life stages from the environment.
The key to control and preventing further infestations however, is treating all pets that might act as hosts in the house. They should all be treated with a product that will kill fleas before they lay eggs, therefore breaking the flea life cycle. If treatment lapses, fleas can start laying eggs again (the reproductive break point) and control lost. It is best therefore, to keep using a preventative treatment on your pets frequently enough to prevent this from happening.
Fleas have long been considered by many pet owners to be a seasonal problem but centrally heated homes means that fleas can now survive indoors all year round, with both pets and people moving them from one household to another. There are many flea products with varying durations of action which are highly effective at killing fleas. Effective tablets, spot on preparations and a collar are all available so you should choose one that you are going to find easiest to use.
Care should be taken however, when selecting a flea product. Some pyrethroids such as permethrin can be extremely toxic to cats and fipronil is toxic to rabbits, so the product should be checked carefully that it is suitable for your pet. If your pet is shampooed or frequently swims then it is best to avoid a product that is going to be washed off. Instructions from the data sheet and prescriber should always be followed to maximise efficacy and reduce potential environmental contamination. Many non-prescription flea tablets contain nitenpyram which is extremely effective at killing fleas but only lasts 24 hours. This means that these tablets would have to be given every day for flea control to be achieved and maintained. If indoor cats are the only pets in the house then there is also an injection lasting 6 months available for cats containing a growth regulator called lufenuron. If you are not sure which product is best for your pet, then contact your veterinary practice for advice and they will be happy to help you.
Ticks are parasites closely related to spiders and live on a wide range of hosts including dogs, people and cats. They feed on blood and attach to hosts by mouthparts that anchor them onto the skin. Ticks are most commonly found in areas of grassland and woodland shared by deer and livestock and this is where pets and people are often exposed. Ticks however, are found all over the UK and small mammals such as hedgehogs can bring them into town environments where more urban living pets may also be exposed. In contrast to fleas, ticks that commonly live in this country do not infest houses but attach to people and pets that walk in tall grass, bracken and undergrowth. Ticks climb to the top of grass and other foliage and ‘quest’ with their legs outstretched waiting for animals to brush up against them. Ticks can cause can cause bite reactions with redness, swelling and irritation where they attach, and these can become infected with bacteria. They can also transmit a variety of tick-borne diseases to humans, cats and dogs including Lyme disease, babesiosis and tick-borne encephalitis. The increase in ticks and tick-borne diseases in people and pets is thought to be due partly to a milder, wetter climate allowing ticks to be active all year round as well as in their common spring and Autumn feeding times. Increased time spent doing outdoor pursuits is also bringing us into greater contact with ticks. We and our pets can still enjoy the great outdoors though by taking a few simple precautions.
- Most tick-borne pathogens take at least 24 hours to be transmitted after ticks have attached. Dogs and people who have been walking in pasture, tall grass or undergrowth should be checked for ticks at least every 24 hours and any found carefully removed with a tick removal device. Tick nymphs and larvae are just a few millimetres long and can easily be missed, especially in long haired dogs or cats that are reluctant to be examined!
- Squeezing, burning or applying paraffin to ticks will stress them, leading to increased likelihood of disease transmission. It should therefore be avoided as well as using blunt tweezers or fingers for removal.
- Once the tick has been removed don’t kill it by squashing it as this may help to spread pathogens. They can be flushed down the toilet or placed in spirit to kill them.
- A product that rapidly kills ticks or repels them should be considered for dogs and cats whose lifestyle put them at increased risk of tick exposure. Most tick prevention products will also provide protection against fleas.
Tick prevention also needs to be considered when taking your pet abroad. When the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS) was first introduced, it included a requirement to treat pets for ticks before return to the UK. Although this requirement has now been dropped, there are still lots of ticks pets may come into contact with while abroad that could transmit diseases exotic to the UK and thrive in our homes. These ticks and tick-borne pathogens can be a threat to our pet’s health and if brought into the UK, could establish here.
Rhipicephalus sanguineus is a voracious tick that will feed on feed on almost anything that moves. It likes hot countries but thrives in centrally heated homes. If introduced on travelled pets, infestations can develop in a similar way to fleas, with ticks living in furniture, bedding and nooks and crannies. Rhipicephalus can transmit a wide range of pathogens that can affect pets including Ehrlichia canis, Anaplasma platys and Hepatazoon canis. it can also infect people it feeds on with bacteria called Rickettsia, capable of causing severe disease. This makes it vitally important to keep out of UK homes. Protecting pets from ticks while they are abroad is therefore important, both to keep them safe from disease, and prevent exotic pathogens and ticks entering and establishing in the UK. This means using tick preventative products before, during and after travel as well as regular checks for ticks.
For more information on flea and tick prevention, at home and abroad, talk to your vet or visit ESCCAP UK & Ireland www.esccapuk.org.uk for free parasite advice and information.