How to protect your pet from fleas and ticks

As we move into the Irish summer, temperatures are rising. The impact of warmer weather on external parasites (such as fleas and ticks) can be dramatic in three ways.

First, the physical activity of creepy crawlies is directly influenced by the ambient temperature. The warmer the weather, the faster they move around.

Second, the breeding cycle of fleas and ticks also speeds up in warmer weather. In cold weather, eggs take longer to hatch, and the egg to adult time span can take many weeks. In warm weather, the chemical reactions of reproductive activity accelerate, and a new crop of fleas can be born every two to three weeks. In contrast, in cold weather, it can take many months.

The life cycle of ticks is more variable, with different species taking longer to reproduce than others, but the bottom line is the same: the warmer the weather, the faster ticks move, the more active they are, and the quicker they reproduce.

Third, as a direct result of these two factors, pets are more affected by external parasites in the summer months. Vets see a regular summer spike in pets with itchy skins, with fleas and ticks making a significant contribution to this problem.

The widespread use of central heating in Ireland means that in many households, the indoor temperature is as warm as summer all year round, with the result that some parasite problems can be as bad in the winter as in the summer.

But the increased summer warmth in parks, woodlands and everywhere outside means that parasites still reach their biggest peak in summertime. Many pet owners find that the only way to stop their pets from picking up infestations is to use regular parasite control.

The control of fleas and ticks is an area that causes confusion among pet owners. Which products should they use and how often? Just last week, a woman brought her itchy Labrador to see me. He was itching, and she had found a flea on him. She could not understand how this was possible: she used a once monthly anti-flea preparation. This mystery was solved when she showed me what she was using: a spot-on product from a supermarket. From a distance, it seemed to be a reasonable anti-flea product, but the small print on the packet told a different story. It was a mild herbal solution that claimed to “repel” fleas.

I showed her the packaging on modern prescription-only flea control products: they state that they “kill fleas”. This is dramatically different from “repelling” fleas.

If you want to ensure that your pet never picks up fleas, or that your itchy pet is not carrying fleas, a product that kills fleas is the only effective answer.

And the same applies to anti-tick products. The best way to control parasites is to work with your vet: the most effective products are kept as “prescription only” because they need to be used under professional supervision.

The world of parasite control is continually changing. So many new innovative flea control products are now available that it can be difficult to keep up with the latest and best products and advice, even for vets. There’s a resource that both vets and the public can access free of charge: an independent, not-for-profit organization called ESCCAP (European Scientific Counsel Companion Animal Parasites). ESCCAP works with experts to develop guidelines on the best practice for the control and treatment of parasites in pets.

The ESCCAP website lists four main reasons to protect pets against fleas and ticks.

First, the damage caused to the skin by these parasites often leads to secondary bacterial or fungal infections, and a wide range of types of itchy skin (dermatitis).

Second, the immune response stimulated by allergic reactions to these parasites also causes serious skin disease.

Third, some parasites (such as fleas) can also infest humans: they won’t live on us for long, but their nibbles can be a serious annoyance. Ticks can carry serious pathogens such as the causal agent of Lyme Disease.

Finally, heavy burdens of blood-sucking parasites (such as fleas and ticks) can cause serious illness such as anemia in some pets. I have seen young puppies and kittens falling dangerously ill from this.

For all of these reasons, ESCCAP recommends that all pet owners take simple year-round steps to protect their pets and homes against fleas and ticks. Importantly, the first stage of devising the best strategy is to review a pet’s lifestyle.

An indoor-only cat living in an apartment may need minimal flea control, while a dog that regularly meets other animals in the local park may need a once monthly spot-on or long-lasting oral product that provides continual protection against fleas. Each pet needs this individual assessment.

Second, treatment of the home is essential if fleas have been seen: eggs, laid in carpets by fleas, can hatch up to a year later. A special spray, again available from vets, is key to dealing with these eggs effectively, and if this is not done, the problem will keep coming back.

ESCCAP takes a similar risk-assessment approach to ticks: dogs that are taken hill walking, or that have access to grasslands or vegetation at high risk of ticks can be completely protected using products such as long lasting tablets.

The risk of tick exposure for urban dogs is more variable and your vet is best placed to advise on risk, based on how often they diagnose ticks on animals locally.

The ESCCAP website is a useful reference resource, but for most owners, the simplest answer is to ask your own vet to recommend the safest approach for your pet’s unique lifestyle.

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