How Can Fleas & Ticks Affect My Dog's Health?

by Hannah Roundy & Dr. Tory Waxman

Sundays founder & Chief Veterinary Office, Dr. Tory Waxman, tells you all you need to know about flea & tick season.

About Dr. Tory Waxman

Sundays was co-founded by Dr. Tory Waxman, a practicing small-animal veterinarian & our Chief Veterinary Officer. She received a BS in Animal Sciences with Distinction in Research from Cornell University and her vet degree from University of Pennsylvania, where she did original research at the Penn Working Dog Center. Tory completed her internship in veterinary medicine at the world-renowned Animal Medical Center in New York City.
Tory grew up outside of Chicago with chocolate labs. Over 7 years ago, she rescued a mixed breed terrier named Mabel who is obsessed with tennis balls. Mabel is also her tireless running buddy who completed a 14-mile run while Tory was training for the Chicago Marathon. Tory enjoys dog training and competing in dog sports such as agility and dock diving.

Dr. Tory Waxman and Sundays mascot, Mabel the dog.

What are fleas and ticks?

Fleas are insects that act as parasites to your dog. They can cause your dog to itch severely, develop skin infections and possible tapeworms. Fleas are usually passed in contact with dogs (or even rodents). 
Ticks are similar parasites that bit and are known to spread infectious diseases like Lyme and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Ticks live in grassy places like forests or woods, so it’s not uncommon for a dog to be bitten while on a walk or a hike. 

When is peak flea & tick season?

This depends on where you live. As the weather starts to warm up, fleas and ticks become more active. For many states in the midwest and East Coast, it begins around February or March and can run through the end of fall. But for coastal states like California and Florida, peak flea & tick season is year-round. 
The American Kennel Club provided a helpful map on flea & tick season around the country. 

Why do I need to be aware of fleas & ticks? 

In addition to the nuisance of fleas and ticks, more concerning are the infectious agents that they carry (to our pets and to us as well). Fleas can cause severe pruritus (itching) leading to skin infections and tapeworms. Ticks carry a multitude of infectious agents including but not limited to Lyme, babesia, anaplasma, ehrlichia, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Additional tickborne illnesses continue to be discovered. 

With our warmer winters and decrease in deep freezes seen over the winter, the tick populations continue to grow (as they thrive in warmer weather). People often blame deer for the abundance of ticks, but mice and other rodents are just as likely to carry ticks even more prevalent than deer. 

If my dog gets bitten, what signs and symptoms should I look for? 

Itching is the most common sign of fleas in dogs. Fleas are particularly attracted to dog’s ears and the base of their tail, so itching in these areas is very concerning. For some flea-allergic dogs, exposure to even one flea can cause severe itching. Fleas are usually thought of as a seasonal issue, but when the weather turns, many small critters such as mice seek shelter in our houses so exposure even during cold months is possible. 

Diseases stemming from tick bites usually include symptoms like vomiting, fever, swelling and lethargy. Always be sure to contact your veterinarian if you think your dog has fleas or ticks!

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How can I prevent fleas & ticks from affecting my dog? 

A wide variety of flea and tick preventatives are on the market. Many are also now available over-the-counter, but I strongly recommend speaking to your veterinarian before starting preventatives. 

Both oral and topical formulations exist. Before deciding which to use, there are a few things to consider. Some flea/tick medications are toxic to cats, so you may want to choose different preventative methods if you have a cat in the house. If you have children, it can also be hard to keep them away from touching topical medications while they are still being absorbed. Dogs with a history of seizures should also use flea/tick preventatives with caution and make sure to consult a veterinarian before starting medication. 

Is there a natural way to treat & prevent flea/tick bites?

In addition to traditional pharmaceutical medications, there is a wide range of “all-natural” preventatives. Please keep in mind that all-natural does not necessarily equal safety. For example, garlic is often touted as an “all-natural” flea and tick preventative, but in large quantities, garlic can cause blood toxicity in dogs. Many alternative preventatives do not have to go through the stringent testing required of traditional medications. If you consider using an alternative medication, ask for third-party testing of the product in addition to any studies proving effectiveness. 

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