They're so tiny, you can barely see them. But there's nothing invisible about their pestiness: They suck blood, make your pet (and you) itch like crazy, and can transmit diseases to pets and people. So you're forgiven if your reaction to fleas and ticks is to want to annihilate them with the most powerful weapon handy.
Though these two insects cause different health problems, both bugs can be knocked out with the same pesticide products. But how do you choose—and how safe are these big guns?
Sickening little pests
Ticks threaten pets and people in every state and transmit or cause more than a dozen diseases, including anaplasmosis, anemia, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and the bogeyman of the moment (with good reason), Lyme disease. These days, ticks are a year-round problem. "Some ticks can survive under a blanket of snow," says Michael Dryden, DVM, PhD, distinguished professor of veterinary parasitology at Kansas State University.
Fleas, meanwhile, can spread murine typhus and bartonellosis (both are bacterial diseases) and cause flea allergy dermatitis, which can bedevil the heck out of your pet and household. A passel of fleas can make cats and dogs—especially puppies—anemic, because the little bloodsuckers sponge up 15 times their own weight in your pet's vital bodily fluids. Animals especially sensitive to bites may develop flea allergy dermatitis, a skin condition that causes itchy "hot spots" and hair loss. When finished with the animals, fleas often make the leap to humans, wrecking the mood in the house with a thousand little bites.
Flea and tick remedies used to be primarily messy dips, sprays, and powders, which were inconvenient for pet owners to use. Some products led to serious problems—even death—in some animals, causing the EPA to act in 2010. The new generation of products includes both topical (top spot) and oral formulations that are much more convenient and very safe if the label directions are followed carefully. "The newer top spot products are effective and easy, and there's virtually no mess," says Ann Hohenhaus, DVM, a staff doctor at the Animal Medical Center in New York City. The liquids come in applicators; once a month, you squirt the stuff on the skin between your pet's shoulder blades. If your pet doesn't tolerate the squirt-on formula, try pills, a different topical, or one of the new flea collars with prolonged effects.
Additionally, follow these simple 5 steps to beat bugs:
Listen to your vet.
He or she will know which products are safe and work best in your area. Select EPA- or FDA-registered products and follow the label instructions to the letter, says Dr. Dryden.
Don't miss a month.
Don't be fooled into thinking winter weather will freeze out the buggers.
Read the speed-to-kill times.
The first speed refers to how fast the product kills pests on your pet now; "residual speed" means how long it kills new pests—usually 3 or 4 weeks.
"Topicals must reach the skin. If you just apply it on the topcoat, it won't kill fleas," says Dr. Dryden. Part the hair until you see the dog's skin, then apply to the skin.
Comb them out.
Use a flea comb, says Jean Hofve, DVM, a holistic veterinarian in Denver, and drown any fleas you comb off in soapy water.