Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Medications Prevent Flea and Tick Problems

Pet Column for the week of August 8, 2011

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Andrea Lin
Information Specialist

"By the time you notice them, you may have a pretty big problem," says Dr. Allan Paul, a veterinary parasitologist at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana.

He's talking about fleas, those annoying bloodsuckers that plague pets and their owners. While fleas can be a year-round concern, they are a lot more common during summer.

"The type of flea we see is the cat flea, though it isn't exclusive to cats," explains Dr. Paul. "Wildlife such as opossums, raccoons, foxes and coyotes also carry this type of flea. After you and your pet spend time outdoors, the fleas can hitch a ride into your home on your clothes, shoes, or pets. This is how even pets that never go outside can get fleas."

Luckily both fleas and the equally annoying tick can be vanquished with effective topical or oral medications available from your veterinarian.

"The tricky part about fleas is that by the time you see them, there might be a lot inside the house," says Dr. Paul. "The first one or two fleas that get inside usually go unnoticed. They are very tiny, and such a small number cause very little annoyance to your pet."

Then the egg-machine gets started. Female fleas start laying eggs 24 hours after first feeding on your pet. Every day they can lay up to 50 eggs, which drop off into your carpet, sofa, and the rest of your house. At this rate a few fleas can quickly become a big problem, one that could become a long-term project to resolve.

The good news is there are many spot-on and oral medications that work very well to keep pets flea-free. "These medications disrupt the flea's life cycle, targeting arthropod central nervous system or exoskeleton development, but are harmless for pets," explains Dr. Paul. "Most kill fleas within 24 hours of contact."

While that takes care of the fleas on your pet, you may still have lots of flea eggs and pupae lurking in the carpet or corners of a room. As the eggs and pupae mature into fleas, however, they seek out an animal to feed on. So as long as all the pets in the household are being treated, the fleas that come into contact with a pet will die without reproducing, and eventually the pests will be eliminated.

Most anti-flea medications today also kill ticks, the notorious spreader of Lyme disease. Deer serve as the main wildlife host of Lyme disease. If you have outdoor cats or dogs that roam through wooded areas, you should be checking your pet for ticks. Anti-flea and -tick medications can help eliminate the ticks you may miss.

The bottom line is prevention is the best way to keep fleas and ticks off your pets and out of your home. Regular use of preventive medications is safe, easy and well worth the cost and effort.

If you have any questions about preventing parasites on your pets, please ask your local veterinarian.