Nearly every pet parent has had to deal with ticks or fleas at some point. These external parasites are more than an itchy problem. Fleas and ticks on dogs and cats can potentially cause harmful complications, ranging from debilitating bacterial infections to anemia (deficiency of red blood cells in the body). Thus, it is highly recommended for pet parents to take steps to prevent fleas and ticks in dogs and cats.
Note: If ticks or fleas are already present on a pet’s coat, seeking treatment at the soonest possible time is advised. In some cases, additional testing may be needed to screen for certain diseases (which are carried by ticks or fleas) or tapeworms (which are carried by fleas).
In this complete guide, we discuss the most effective treatment and preventive measures against fleas on dogs and cats, while also giving answers to the most commonly asked questions regarding fleas and ticks.
What’s in This Guide?
- Ticks vs. Fleas
- Understanding the Risks of Skin Parasites on Pets
- Getting Rid of Ticks & Fleas on Pets
- Preventing Fleas & Ticks on Pets
I. Ticks vs. Fleas
The first most apparent difference between fleas and ticks is the shape of their body. Ticks have an oval-shaped body while fleas have a body that is laterally compressed. Furthermore, fleas can use their long hind legs to jump great distances — something that ticks are not capable of doing.
Both fleas and ticks can survive for some time without a host. Common fleas in their adult stage can survive for up to 3 months without a host as long as they are in an optimal environment (i.e. shaded and humid). Meanwhile, some species of adult ticks can survive for around 2 years without a host, given the right conditions in their environment (i.e. enough shade and moisture). For this reason, both fleas and ticks can hide in indoor and outdoor spaces.
Below are the most common hiding spots for ticks and fleas:
Common Hiding Spots for Ticks
- Grassy areas, wooded areas, parks, & swamps
- Parks, trails, & picnic spots
- Dead branches & piles of leaves
- In rugs and along baseboards inside the home
Common Hiding Spots for Fleas
- Trees, shrubs & grasses
- Carpets, upholstery, & bedding
- Dog houses, sheds, & porches
II. Understanding the Risks of Skin Parasites on Pets
Skin parasites pose significant risks to the health of pets, causing discomfort, irritation, and potentially more severe health issues.
Fleas and ticks on dogs and cats can cause anemia (deficiency of red blood cells) if the infestation is severe. Small dogs or cats, as well as puppies and kittens, are particularly prone to developing anemia from severe tick or flea infestations. Aside from anemia, ticks and fleas on dogs and cats can cause other health issues.
Is a Tick on a Dog or Cat Harmful?
Ticks have the potential to be harmful to dogs and cats — as well as humans. This is because various species of ticks are vectors for disease-causing pathogens. A few examples of common tick-borne diseases that target dogs, cats, and humans include the following:
- Lyme Disease - a bacterial infection that targets the joints, kidneys, nervous system, and more. Symptoms include fever, joint pain, joint swelling, lameness, and loss of appetite.
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) - a bacterial infection that targets the blood vessel linings. Symptoms include fever, joint pain, and red spots on the lining of a pet’s eyelids and mouth. These red spots are a sign of internal bleeding due to a lack of platelets.
- Ehrlichiosis - a bacterial infection that targets white blood cells. Symptoms include fever, swollen lymph nodes, and unexplained bruising or bleeding.
- Anaplasmosis - a bacterial infection that targets either the white blood cells or platelets. Symptoms will vary depending on the causal pathogen. A few potential signs include lethargy, fever, nosebleeds, bruising on the gums, and vomiting.
- Babesiosis - a bacterial infection that targets red blood cells. Symptoms include fever, weakness, and pale gums.
How Harmful are Fleas to Cats & Dogs?
Some dogs and cats are allergic to fleas, producing an allergic reaction to fleas known as flea allergy dermatitis (FAD). Flea allergy dermatitis produces symptoms like severe itching, hair loss, and skin lesions in certain areas (commonly on the lower back, trailhead, and inner thighs). There is also a chance that dogs and cats with FAD will develop secondary bacterial infections because of their compromised skin barrier.
Aside from potentially triggering allergies in certain pets, fleas on cats and dogs can also be a vector or carrier for common diseases, such as the following:
- Cat scratch fever or cat scratch disease - an infection involving flea-born bacteria from genus Bartonella that causes fever, decreased energy levels, and loss of appetite.
- Tapeworm infestation - an intestinal parasite in dogs and cats that can cause weight loss, changes in appetite, anal scooting, and the appearance of rice-like particles (tapeworm segments) on stool, vomit, or near the pet’s rectum.
III. Getting Rid of Ticks & Fleas on Dogs & Cats
Managing tick and flea infestations requires a multi-faceted approach. Pet owners often seek solutions that provide immediate relief initially — and then take steps for long-term prevention afterward. This section focuses on key information regarding treating or providing immediate relief for ongoing tick or flea infestations.
Can You Use the Same Anti-Flea or Anti-Tick Medicine on Dogs & Cats?
No, please AVOID using anti-tick or anti-flea treatments outside of their recommended use.
Certain products formulated for dogs are TOXIC for cats. Meanwhile, anti-tick or anti-flea treatments for cats will typically not provide adequate treatment or protection for dogs. Make sure to use products for ticks and fleas on dogs and cats as indicated or as instructed by a veterinarian.
Choosing the right medication is crucial. Consult with a veterinarian to determine the most effective and safe treatment options for dogs and cats.
What Kills Ticks & Fleas on Dogs Immediately?
Most medications and treatments are designed to act quickly against fleas and ticks on dogs. These can include:
1. Topical Solutions for Ticks & Fleas on Dogs
Topical solutions are a popular and effective method for preventing and treating ticks and fleas on dogs. These solutions are usually applied directly to the skin, typically between the shoulder blades, and they work by spreading across the dog's body through natural skin oils. These solutions start killing fleas and ticks in as early as 12 -48 hours after administration.
Note: Topical solutions against fleas and ticks on dogs need to be applied on a dosing schedule to maintain efficacy. In addition, many products may not stay on after bathing or swimming; make sure to check the topical solution’s instructions.
1. Oral Medications for Fleas & Ticks on Dogs
Oral medications provide an internal approach to flea and tick prevention. These medications come in the form of chewable tablets or flavored treats, making administration easy for pet owners. Once ingested, the active ingredients circulate in the dog's bloodstream, killing ticks and fleas when they feed on the dog. Some oral medications act as early as 2 - 4 hours after administration.
Note: When considering oral medications against fleas and ticks, veterinarians will need to consider whether or not a dog has had a history of seizures.
3. Medicated Collars for Ticks & Fleas on Dogs
Medicated collars are another option for controlling ticks and fleas on dogs. These collars are infused with anti-tick and/or anti-flea solutions that are gradually released over time, creating a protective zone around the dog's neck and upper body. Medicated collars are easy to use and provide continuous, long-term protection against ticks and fleas.
Note: Medicated collars need to be replaced every few months, as per the manufacturer’s or veterinarian’s instructions, to be effective against fleas and ticks. In addition, some collars must be tight to the skin while others do not. If the collar is not put on correctly, it will not give protection.
What Kills Ticks & Fleas on Cats Instantly? [Treatments for Fleas & Ticks]
Various medications and treatments are formulated to swiftly combat fleas and ticks specifically in cats. Here are ways to safely combat ticks and fleas on cats:
1. Topical Solutions for Ticks & Fleas on Cats
Topical solutions are popular for their ease of use and direct application to the cat's skin. These solutions typically come in small vials and are applied to a specific spot on the cat's neck or between the shoulder blades. These spots are chosen specifically because it is the part of a cat’s body that they cannot lick themselves. The active ingredients then spread over the skin and coat, protecting against fleas and ticks. Topical treatments for cats can work in as early as 12 - 48 hours after administration.
Note: Most anti-flea or anti-tick products for cats are formulated to dry within a set period of time. Until the topical treatment is completely dry, it is recommended to separate treated cats from each other or from other cats. This is an important note for multi-cat environments.
2. Oral Medications for Fleas & Ticks on Cats
Oral medications against ticks and fleas on cats are a convenient and effective way to combat these skin parasites. Anti-tick and anti-flea cat medications typically come in the form of tablets. Oral treatments against ticks and fleas can start working in as little as 2 - 4 hours.
Note: Make sure to consult a veterinarian when choosing oral anti-tick or anti-flea medications for cats.
3. Medicated Collars for Ticks & Fleas on Cats
Medicated collars are another option for flea and tick control in cats. These collars are infused with active ingredients that are gradually released onto the cat's skin and coat. They typically offer protection for a few months — as long as the collar is worn correctly, as per the manufacturer’s specification. Collars that are indicated for cats are safe when worn — however, they may cause gastrointestinal upset (e.g. vomiting, diarrhea) if licked directly.
Note: Most cats are not comfortable with wearing medicated collars. If a cat is irritated by the collar, they may try to remove and bite it. Other cats in multi-cat environments may also accidentally lick the collar directly during grooming. For these reasons, anti-tick or anti-flea collars are typically not recommended as a first option for cats.
IV. Preventing Fleas & Ticks on Dogs & Cats
Prevention is often the best strategy when it comes to dealing with ticks and fleas on cats and dogs. Taking proactive steps can help ensure your pets remain happy, healthy, and free from these troublesome parasites.
1. Use Preventive Medications for Ticks and Fleas
Numerous anti-tick and anti-flea medications for dogs and cats can also be used as a preventive measure. Such products are administered monthly — or as recommended by the manufacturer or by your primary care veterinarian. Make sure to consult your veterinarian for the safest flea and tick preventives for your dog or cat; recommendations are based on the dog’s or cat’s age, weight, and lifestyle.
Note: Sploot’s veterinarian, Dr. Allison Kihn advises pet parents to look closely at a product’s indications because not all medications that kill ticks and fleas will also provide long-term preventive benefits. Dr. Kihn states: “It's hard to divide flea/tick prevention and medications that kill [these skin parasites] because [most] medications will do both —except for products like Capstar or Capguard which only kills fleas that are present at the time of the product’s usage, but doesn't provide long-lasting protection.”
2. Groom Your Pet Regularly
Regular grooming sessions can help you spot and remove ticks and fleas before they become a significant problem. Brush your pet's fur and inspect their skin regularly; this practice is especially recommended after going in the woods, field, or other environments where fleas and ticks can hide.
3. Wash Bedding and Pet Accessories
Wash your pet's bedding, blankets, and toys regularly in hot water to kill any existing fleas and ticks. This is especially important if your pet has recently had an infestation.
4. Keep Your Home Clean
Regularly clean and vacuum your home, especially areas where your pet spends most of its time. This helps eliminate flea or tick eggs, larvae, and pupae from the home environment. Sploot’s veterinarian, Dr. Kihn further advises: “If there is concern for fleas [in particular], make sure to vacuum every day for 7 days and then throw out the dust — as leaving the collected dust in a trash can inside the house will just keep the fleas inside.“
Final Thoughts About Ticks on Dogs and Cats
In conclusion, understanding the nuances of ticks and fleas is essential for maintaining the well-being of dogs and cats. If you have further questions about this or any other aspect of your pet’s health, we are always here to help!
Sploot Veterinary Care is a primary and urgent care veterinarian with numerous convenient clinic locations. Our experienced veterinarians can facilitate the treatment of common skin parasites (i.e. fleas and ticks on dogs and cats) as well as other health issues in dogs and cats.
Till next time, we’re with you every pounce of the way!