They bite. They itch. They're a general nuisance to your cat or dog. And their prevention could be a matter of life or death for your pet.
It's no secret that fleas and ticks are potential disease carriers, but you might be surprised at just how many maladies result from these tiny bloodsuckers.
"Ticks and fleas aren't only uncomfortable for your pet, but they can lead to a host of diseases and can even be fatal," says Steven May, former editor of Vetz Magazine. May now heads the pet website The Daily Growl and has more than 350,000 friends of his daily pet advice Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/ePetExpert).
From simple skin irritations to life-threatening ailments, there are at least a dozen good reasons to keep up with flea and tick prevention.
"On one end of the spectrum, fleas cause irritation, which leads pets to scratch or chew a specific area, which can cause hot spots and hair loss -- and because fleas suck blood, a heavy infestation can even cause anemia," May explains.
Parasitic dermatitis is an allergic reaction caused by a pet's hypersensitivity to flea saliva. Characterized by inflammation and small raised bumps on the skin, this hypersensitivity can remain long after the fleas are gone and, in extreme cases, can result in secondary skin infections.
On the other end of the spectrum, cats and dogs can be exposed to Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, bartonella (the bacteria responsible for cat-scratch disease in humans), tapeworm and meningoencephalitis, an inflammatory disease that attacks the brain and spinal cord.
*Prevention Is the Best Medicine
Just one flea -- that's all it takes to start an infestation and put your pet at risk, so prevention is critical.
"If pet owners see one flea, they should know their pets are exposed to hundreds, if not thousands -- and if their pet spends time in areas where wildlife is prevalent, there is a very good chance they will come in contact with ticks," May says.
Topical treatments are the go-to method for keeping fleas and ticks at bay, but the wrong treatment can be just as dangerous as the parasites themselves.
According to The Humane Society of the United States, certain components found in spot treatments, powders, shampoos, dips and sprays may be harmful to pets and humans. Though many of the anti-flea and anti-tick medications are approved for sale by the Environmental Protection Agency, there have been some 1,600 pet deaths linked to the chemical pyrethroid, which is found in many spot-on treatments. Other ingredients -- including permethrin, carbaryl and propoxur -- are thought to be carcinogenic to humans.
"There has been some controversy surrounding these types of topical products, given their toxicity level, but there are a number of newer, once-a-month products that are more effective and safer now than in the past," May says.
"My strong suggestion is for pet owners to consult with their veterinarians prior to starting any tick and flea prevention regimen," May says. "Your vet will be able to help you weigh the pros and cons. ... They will have access to the newest treatments and can offer advice based on your particular environment."
If you opt to give your dog or cat spot-on flea and tick treatments, follow these tips to stay safe:
--Be certain of your pet's weight before purchase to ensure the proper dose. Too much medicine could make your pet sick, and not enough might render the treatment useless.
--Use all flea and tick medications as directed. Do not use dog treatments on cats -- and vice versa. Additionally, don't mess with the dosages. You may think you're saving money by splitting one "large dog" dose for two smaller dogs, but it's no savings if it makes your puppy sick.
--Stay current on flea and tick treatments to ensure your pet receives continued protection. Most spot treatments should be applied once a month. Do not administer treatments more frequently than needed.
--Don't use spot treatments on pregnant, elderly or sick pets.
--Know the signs of poisoning by flea and tick treatments. Salivating, dilated pupils, tremors, vomiting, hiding, shivering and skin irritation may indicate an adverse reaction to the treatment. If your pet shows these symptoms, contact your vet immediately.
According to May, pet owners also can help prevent exposure to fleas and ticks by cutting back weeds in the yard and avoiding areas where contact may take place. A daily brushing with a flea comb will not only keep your pet comfortable but alert you to exposure.
"By getting into the habit of a once-a-month treatment -- in addition to frequent brushings with a flea comb -- you're taking the extra step to ensure your pet stays tick- and flea-free throughout the year," May says.