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Posted on 04-03-2015

FLEAS, TICKS, AND DISEASE…OH MY!

Spring has finally sprung in Colorado’s Front Range and as we are preparing our garden beds for planting, getting outside for recreational opportunities, and just enjoying the warmer temperatures, we also need to start thinking about external parasite prevention for our furry friends.

Although we are comparably lucky in Colorado to have fewer fleas and ticks than other parts of the country, we definitely still see these parasites and, unfortunately, their associated diseases as well. 

Fleas

The cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis) is the most common flea affecting mammals in North America and can be found in all fifty states.  Although it is a common misconception that the flea is just an itchy nuisance, fleas can transmit disease and even cause death with heavy infestations in young or otherwise debilitated animals.  The following is a list of common flea associated conditions:

  • Flea Allergic Dermatitis (fleas do not make animals itchy unless there a flea bite allergy).
  • Flea Anemia.
  • Feline Infectious Anemia (a life-threatening blood parasite carried by fleas).
  • Cat Scratch Fever/Bartonellosis (does not make the cat sick but the infected cat can make a person sick).
  • Common Tapeworm infection (this intestinal worm is the result of eating a flea while grooming).

Fleas thrive in stable indoor environments and protected outdoor locations. They can survive in a type of hibernation waiting for an appropriate host to feed on, sometimes up to a year!  A female flea will lay eggs continuously after its first blood meal until the time of its death, which quickly leads to an entrenched and burdensome problem.  Often we do not see fleas on our pets because they are grooming them off, but a thorough examination with your veterinarian will often expose a problem if it exists.

Flea dirt (feces) on a dog.           Adult flea, magnified.

Ticks

There are many species of ticks in North America with each having their own unique disease association.  Although there are over 30 known species of ticks in Colorado, the most common species include the Rocky Mountain Wood Tick (Dermacenter andersoni) and the Brown Dog Tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus). Ticks are most active during the Spring and Summer months and can cause hypersensitivity reactions and transmit severe diseases. Ticks may cause irritation and itching around the attachment site as well as anemia from blood loss. Severe secondary bacterial infections can develop at the tick attachment site.

Disease transmission:

  • Ticks harbor and transmit many diseases that can affect animals as well as humans.  These include (to name only a few) Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Colorado Tick Fever, Tularemia, Ehrlichiosis, and Anaplasmosis.
  • The feeding time required to allow disease transmission varies between ticks and disease agents. Ehrlichia spp. and Rickettsia spp. are transmitted within 3-6 hours of tick attachment, while Borrelia burgdorferi (agent that causes Lyme disease) transmission can require 24-48 hours of feeding before a host is infected.
  • Tick paralysis is a form of tick toxicosis characterized by an acute motor paralysis and caused by a neurotoxin produced by females of several tick species. In the United States, tick paralysis is most often connected with Dermacentor spp.

If you actually see a tick on your pet, you can remove it with tweezers by focusing on grasping the head to remove the mouth parts and trying not to squeeze the body.  Once removed, you should save the tick in a wet paper towel within a plastic baggy and place it in the refrigerator so that the tick may be submitted for testing if deemed necessary.

 

Embedded tick on dog.           Fully engorged tick on dog.

Prevention

                The best and easiest way to avoid flea and tick attachment, infestation, and disease transmission is to protect our animals with preventative medications.  These come in topical and oral forms and are available from your veterinarian.  Similar to heartworm medication, these are applied or administered monthly.  Products differ in mechanism of action, but most repel and cause death in adult fleas and ticks and some will even sterilize the next generation, which has the added benefit of controlling an infestation in your home environment (yard and indoors). 

References:

  1. CAPC.org
  2. CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/ticks/geographic_distribution.html
  3. CSU extension: http://www.colostate.edu/Dept/CoopExt/4DMG/Pests/ticks.htm
  4. Greene, Craig (2012).  Infectious Diseases of the Dog and Cat (Fourth Ed.).  Athens, Georgia: Elsevier.

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