Caitlin UltimoFlea & Tick / Health

Health Problems Caused by Flea and Ticks

Contributed by Dr. Alison Birken, owner and DVM of Victoria Park Animal Hospital.

If you haven’t considered monthly preventatives as a tick and flea treatment for dogs and cats, it’s never too late to start. Nothing is more terrifying to pet parents than seeing fleas and ticks on their beloved pets. Just the thought of these pesky parasites wreaking havoc and feeding on our pets is a scary one. Did you know that these parasites not only cause irritation and annoyance to our pets when they bite, but they can also transmit diseases and other parasites? While dog and cat flea treatment is usually easy and straightforward, dealing with the aftermath of the infestation can be more challenging.  Let’s take a look at some of the more serious illnesses that can result from flea and tick infestation to reinforce the importance of monthly preventatives. As always, my number one priority is keeping our pets healthy and safe from disease.

Fleas. To the naked eye, adult fleas are visible—about the size of a pinpoint needle—and enjoy living and feeding on their dog and cat hosts. Fleas are wingless insects that are black or dark brown in color. When seen on your pets, adult fleas tend to move very quickly, and can even jump. Flea bites on dogs (and flea bites on cats) cause itchiness, inflammation and irritation on their skin. Fleas can be a nuisance for you and your pet and may even cause some more concerning, but treatable health issues.

Flea Bite Symptoms and Diseases

• Flea Allergy Dermatitis. Did you know that flea bites on dogs and cats can cause allergic reactions? Pets that are allergic to flea bites will generally break out in a skin infection and become severely itchy. Most of the time, the allergic reaction is localized to the base of the tail or bottom half of the pet, but this is not always the case. A common misconception from pet parents is that there is no possible way their pet is allergic to fleas because they have never seen a single flea.  However, it is very rare to see a flea on your pet. The bite from the flea is so irritating to the pet that they quickly chew or scratch the flea off. It is so important to have your pet on monthly flea preventatives, even if they rarely venture outside. Many times, pets will need systemic antibiotics or a topical shampoo like Vet’s Best Allergy Itch Relief Shampoo for dogs. I commonly prescribe Capstar, a pill that immediately kills any adult fleas on your pet for 24 hours. Please contact your veterinarian if you notice any skin lesions, extreme itchiness, hair loss or discomfort. Your veterinarian will help remove any fleas from your pet, treat any disease from the allergic reaction, and recommend a monthly flea preventative.

• Tapeworms. Yep, you are reading this right: fleas transmit tapeworms. Tapeworms are gastrointestinal parasites that live, grow and reproduce in the intestines of your pet while feeding off the nutrients your pet digests. Pets can become infested when they digest adult fleas that are harboring tapeworm eggs. The most common symptom my clients see are small, white, rice-looking pieces in their pet’s stool, known as proglottids. Speak with your veterinarian if you suspect your pet may have tapeworms so they can be treated and cared for properly.

• Plague. Although this disease has basically been eradicated in people, pets can still become infected. If a flea fed on an infected wild animal such as a chipmunk, your pet can contract plague from that flea’s bite. If infected, cats and dogs will have a fever and swollen lymph nodes, and the disease may even cause sudden death. Contact your veterinarian immediately if your pet is showing any signs of fever, lethargy or swollen lymph nodes.

• Haemobartonellosis. This disease can be transmitted to your cat or dog by fleas and ticks. The bacteria target the red blood cells and can lead to anemia and weakness.

Ticks. Ticks are a close cousin to spiders and are actually in the arachnid family. They have eight legs, which may be difficult to see with the naked eye, and are bigger than fleas. There are many different species and sizes of ticks. When found on your pet, ticks are generally stationary and feeding, unlike fleas. Ticks feed by burrowing or embedding their entire heads into the skin of your pet, where they become attached, and then take a blood meal. Ticks can be a bit more daunting for my pet parents than fleas. In addition to their scary appearance, they can cause some very serious diseases.

Tick Bite Symptoms and Diseases

• Lyme’s Disease. This disease is transmitted by ticks and caused by a bacterial species called Borrelia burgdorferi. The most common tick bite symptoms from this are lameness, pain in joints and flu-like symptoms.

• Erlichiosis. This disease is caused by bacterial organisms—Ehrlichia canis (transmitted by the brown tick) and Ehrlichia lewinii (transmitted by the Lone Star tick). The bacteria inhabit white blood cells, which are destroyed in the process. Tick bite symptoms from this involve pain in the joints, fever, vomiting, diarrhea and possible nervous system disorders.

• Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Rickettsia rickettsiiis a rod-shaped organism that resembles a bacteria but behaves like a virus. This organism, which is transmitted by a tick bite, causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The most common clinical signs are depression, lethargy, anorexia, blood in the urine, arrhythmia (irregular heart beat), loss of coordination, swelling in the limbs, edema (fluid retention), pain in the eyes and redness of the mucous membranes.

Anaplasmosis. Deer ticks and western black-legged ticks carry the bacteria that transmit anaplasmosis. Clinical signs involve pain in the joints, fever, vomiting, diarrhea and possible nervous system disorders.

• Babesiosis (Piroplasmosis). Babesiosis is a protozoal infection that is transmitted by ticks. The Protozoa infects red blood cells and can lead to anemia. The most common clinical signs are pale gums, depression, dark colored urine, fever and swollen lymph nodes.

Tularemia. Cats are generally more affected than dogs with this bacterial infection. It is transmitted by four different types of ticks. Pets will present with high fever, swollen lymph nodes, nasal discharge and depression.

• Tick Paralysis. Tick paralysis is caused by a potent toxin in the saliva of a female tick when feeding on its host. The toxin enters the pet’s bloodstream and directly affects the nervous system, leading to paralysis. This disease is more common in dogs. In fact, cats in the U.S. appear to have built a resistance to the toxin.

• American Canine Hepatozoonosis. Hepatozoonosis is a protozoal infection that is transmitted by the Amblyomma maculatum tick. The most common clinical signs are fever, lack of appetite, weight loss, bloody diarrhea, painful skin and muscles, muscle wasting and kidney failure.

•  Cytauxzoonosis. This disease is found in cats and is more common in the south central and southeast U.S. Common clinical signs are anemia, depression, high fever, difficulty breathing and jaundice (yellowing of the skin).

Haemobartonellosis. This disease can be transmitted to your cat or dog by fleas and ticks. The bacteria target the red blood cells and can lead to anemia and weakness.

I hope this article helps stress the importance of tick and flea treatments for dogs and cats and monthly preventatives. I commonly recommend Frontline Plus for cats, and a tick & flea collar from Seresto for dogs for flea and tick preventatives. Parasites can be a pesky problem not only in that moment of infestation, but long after your pet was treated. As always, speak with your veterinarian if any fleas or ticks are seen on your pet. If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian. They are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets!