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What B.C. pet parents need to know about fleas and ticks

BC SPCA veterinarian on how to know if your dogs have fleas, how ticks get onto pets and when to see a vet.
A vet removes a tick from a cocker spaniel.

English novelist George Eliot said it best: "Animals are such agreeable friends — they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms." 

There is nothing like dog or cat love.

But being a pet owner isn't all walks and cuddles with our furry friends. 

Fleas and ticks are a worry for many pet parents, particularly in our region.

What is the big deal with fleas?

What is the big deal about fleas anyway? 

Well, for one thing, there is a potential for dermatitis — an inflammatory, itchy skin condition — as a result of the fleas, according to BC SPCA veterinarian Hannah Weitzenfeld.

And fleas could transmit diseases to pets.

"They do also suck the blood of the animals. So sometimes, if it's a severe infestation, you can actually get significant anemia. And it's really sad, [especially] with kittens and puppies that are really young. If they have a lot of fleas, they can actually become so sick; it could be fatal in some cases … It's very rare for that to happen, thankfully,” Weitzenfeld said.

How do you know if your pet has fleas?

Given they can thrive indoors, fleas can be an issue for pets year-round but are most common in the summer and fall.

Weitzenfeld said some people don't notice that their pet has fleas. 

"Some things that you may notice would be if there are little brown bugs, they may hop, or you may just see them crawling if you part the fur. Sometimes they could be noticed around the rump area or on the belly," she said. 

Another tell-tale sign is black "dirt" in the fur.

Pet owners can dab that dirt with a wet paper towel to confirm there are fleas. 

If the pet has fleas, the moistened towel will turn red because the “dirt” is actually flea poop and fleas consume the blood of their host. 

Another sign of fleas is pets itching or chewing at their fur or skin. 

Some animals can be more sensitive to fleas than others.

"Some animals have a ton of fleas, but they do not itch that much. Whereas others may have one flea, and they eat all the fleas and chew them all off of themselves — they are just so itchy. And that can sometimes lead to flea allergy dermatitis. But it's not always a consistent sign that a pet will always be super, super itchy when they have fleas,” Weitzenfeld said. 

Itching can also be from other allergies, more serious conditions like autoimmune conditions, cancers or even some neurological conditions that can manifest with what appears to be itching, she cautioned. 

If in doubt, it is always best to see your vet. 

In terms of treating fleas, Weitzenfeld said prevention is the best approach. 

Thus, treat your pet with flea control products year-round before they are an issue.

"Once you already have a flea problem, then it is more difficult to get rid of, and you have to treat your home as well," she noted. 

Weitzenfeld added that when using a flea treatment, if you notice a flea, it's not always necessary to go to the vet. 

"If your pet isn't itching, doesn't have redness, and there are no other concerns, you can just go ahead and restart the flea prevention at that time," she said. 

But if you are seeing concerns such as significant itching, redness, hair loss, or any other signs or symptoms of illness, it is a good idea to check in with your vet.  

If you didn't use a flea prevention medication and now your pet has fleas, the best thing is to ask your vet what product might be best for your specific pet. 

"Because there are products that are awesome for dogs, but they are toxic to cats, and they can make some very, very sick or, some treatments may be safe for pregnant animals or different ages of animals, whereas others might not. So your vet would be the best source of information as far as treatment," she said. 

Some folks will try home remedies to treat their pets' fleas, such as colloidal silver or garlic, which is toxic for dogs. 

"I've definitely seen that [these don't] work because those that have tried it do come for help afterwards, but at that point, there are already usually more concerns going on. So it's better to just go with a proven treatment and prevention from the beginning," she said.

Is that a tick?

While there are ticks in many areas throughout B.C., Weitzenfeld noted that they are known to be prevalent from Lions Bay up through Squamish and the Sea to Sky. 

The way ticks operate means that pets may not even know they have one. 

"The tick actually injects a sort of numbing agent, so that's why your dog might have a tick right on its nose, and it doesn't even do anything, whereas those are very sensitive areas traditionally, for pets," said Weitzenfeld. 

The problem is that ticks also suck pets' blood, and they embed their mouth parts into the skin. 

Most concerning,  there are multiple tick-borne diseases that ticks can transmit that can make pets quite sick, from Lyme disease to others that are less common but still a concern, she said. 

Humans can also contract Lyme disease from ticks.

How do ticks get onto our pets?

Ticks do what is called questing. 

“[They do] this perching thing where they support themselves on a branch or a leaf with some of their back legs. And then they extend some of their front legs — they have eight legs, similar to spiders — and then they wait for that leg of a dog or a person to come by so that they can attach and climb on really quickly," Weitzenfeld said. 

Thus, it is important for pet owners to employ tick-preventative medications to kill the ticks or to dissuade them from latching on, she added. 

Even if you have used a treatment, however, it is a good idea to check your dog for ticks after being outdoors. 

If a tick is found, it is best to have a vet remove it. 

"Because the mouthparts can get stuck in the skin," Weitzenfeld said. 

Cats can get ticks, too, but it's less common than for dogs. 

"The other thing that we will often see is pet guardians will believe that something is a tick, but it's actually a small growth that looks like a tick, and then trying to remove that, unfortunately, obviously results in a bit of trauma and bleeding."

BC SPCA has plenty of other advice about fleas and ticks on its website.