This article was updated in May 2020.
The warmer months are here, and so are fleas and ticks. These resilient vermin work their way into our lives every year and can spoil a day out with a single bite. Luckily, you don’t have to move house or avoid the outdoors to escape these pests. Before setting out on hikes, trips and outdoor adventures with your dog, spray up and follow our guide to surviving flea and tick season.
First things first: What are ticks and fleas? The short answer is they’re parasites who survive on other living things, stealing all the hard-earned nutrients for themselves. That alone is annoying, but when you add in the fact that they carry dangerous infections and diseases, they’re really going to be off Fido’s Christmas card list. Ticks, which are actually not insects but arachnids like spiders, carry Lyme disease (among other ailments) in their stomachs. This nasty infection can give both humans and dogs flu-like symptoms, joint pain and arthritis, and can even prove fatal. The areas where Lyme disease is most prevalent in the U.S. are the Northeast, Upper Midwest and Pacific coast, but it’s not unheard of in every state. Unfortunately, ticks can also give two- and four-legged victims other diseases like tick paralysis. The negative effects of fleas can range from mild skin irritation to the plague (that escalated quickly). There are 200 species of fleas that affect dogs, with the most common being the cat flea. Fleas thrive in certain areas during different times of the year, as shown in this map.
Although infections are a worst-case scenario, it’s better to be safe than sorry during flea and tick season by following a few simple guidelines.
Pet parents should regularly apply a flea and tick preventative product to their dog. The different application methods include drops, chewable pills, collars, sprays and shampoos. Some contain strong chemicals while others use natural ingredients. With all the choices available, how do you know which one will best suit your dog’s needs? Here’s a rundown of the options:
Droplets are one of the best ways to prevent fleas and ticks. Once applied to an area, usually the base of the neck, the active ingredient spreads across the body, killing harmful pests on contact. Other methods require your pet to be bitten first for the poison to be administered to the invading species. Frontline Plus is one of Amazon’s best-selling products and rates highly among customers for reliability. Packages can be purchased with three or six doses, and can be applied in easy-to-use droplets directly on your dog’s skin each month.
Droplets aren’t for everybody, and many companies also offer a chewable pill that can be disguised in food. Unlike drops, the pills circulate the active ingredient around a dog’s bloodstream (a bite is the only way a flea or tick can be affected). Oral options like Novartis Capstar Flea Tablets are not preventative medications. Instead, they kill existing fleas that are living on your pet. Once those pests are gone, try feeding your dog EcoFlea by ColoradoDog Treats. It’s a great alternative if you don’t want to put chemicals on your dog’s skin or in her body. Depending on her size, your pup will need to eat three to six chews daily to stave off ticks and fleas. She’ll build up a protective barrier over time (often between seven to 10 days).
How about a collar that can help keep fleas and ticks at bay? Flea collars actually carry the active ingredient inside, radiating it over the dog’s body. Bayer’s Seresto Flea and Tick Collar is recommended by veterinarians, lasts up to a whopping eight months, and kills fleas and ticks through contact (no bites necessary).
Sprays and Shampoos
Most flea and tick shampoos and sprays must be used along with another preventative product. Vet’s Best Flea and Tick Advanced Strength Dog Shampoo not only kills fleas, flea larvae, flea eggs, and ticks on contact, but also leaves your pooch smelling delightful from all the natural ingredients and essential oils. Sprays work in a similar fashion, and many of them can be applied to your home as well as your pet. Wondercide Flea and Tick and Mosquito Control Spray can be sprayed anywhere, smells good and is designed to give your pet’s coat a nice shine, too. Sometimes, we realize our dogs are covered in fleas a little too late to save our beloved rugs, carpet and couch. Vet's Best Flea and Tick Home Spray can be used around your house regularly or just as a one-off after an infestation to kill fleas, flea larvae, flea eggs, ticks and mosquitoes without any hazardous or harmful chemicals all over your household items. Outdoors folk who are heading to a high-risk area should also apply bug spray. Repelsafe is an all-natural option that can be used on both humans and dogs. It’ll even kill ticks on contact and help keep mosquitoes away.
How Flea and Tick Season Affects You
By now, Fido should be equipped and ready for outdoor survival during flea and tick season, but what about the person on the other end of the leash? There are a few rules you can follow to limit your exposure to the harmful little critters. Hikers are advised to wear lightly colored clothing, which should easily show the darker colored ticks coming along for the ride. You should also cover any bare skin (a magnet for ticks), and that means tucking socks into trousers and shirts into pants. Nobody said staying safe was going to look good!
Try and stick to the main sections of trails. Stray into long grass and overgrown areas, and you’re venturing into flea and tick territory. Finally, make sure you inspect yourself and your dog post-hike. Ticks will burrow into any crevice they can find, so make sure you are thorough. Another pro tip is to try to limit your dog’s interaction with other furry flea and tick magnets. Deer, raccoons, opossums and feral cats are all known to carry an abundance of these pests on their coats. If you know they’re likely to be in the area, it’s probably best to leash up your dog.
Flea and Tick Removal
As weird as this might sound, you don’t want to remove the head of a tick to get rid of it. Their heads can detach from their bodies, remain on the skin and keep infecting the person or dog (creepy, right?). Instead, grab a pair of blunt-end tweezers or better yet, a tick removal tool (like a tick key); make a part in your dog’s fur to get a good view of the pest; then pull it out by the body to leave the whole thing intact. Once removed, rub your hands and the area where the tick was attached with rubbing alcohol to kill harmful bacteria.
Don’t use your hands to attempt to squish the tick to exact Fido’s revenge, as they will just wriggle out of it and may embed themselves in your skin. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggests putting the removed tick in alcohol, a sealed container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet to be sure it can do no more harm. Regularly checking your furry friend for fleas and ticks is an important best practice. Every time your dog goes outside, inspect her thoroughly on return (especially in areas with less hair, like the ears and under the legs). During peak season, it’s recommended that you do this every day.
Also keep an eye on the places where a tick has been embedded on you or your dog. One of the first signs of Lyme disease is a spiral-shaped bruise that appears around the area. Take your dog to your vet if you are at all concerned that she may have contracted an infection (or get yourself to the hospital). In most cases, when infections are caught early, they are treatable with antibiotics.
Removing fleas is a totally different process. Dogs who run and hide when they hear their owners utter the dreaded words “bath time” will thank them afterwards for taking care of the itchy parasites that have been living rent-free on their fur. Any kind of lather kills fleas, so most dog shampoos will get rid of them in the bath. As we mentioned before, there are a number of flea and tick shampoos that are specifically designed to target fleas, including TropiClean Natural Shampoo, which is made using essential oils. Apple cider vinegar helps to balance your dog’s PH after a wash, which is useful because fleas hate dogs with a balanced PH. The final step is to use a flea comb, like this one from Safari. Go over your dog’s fur after her bath to catch any clingers and to remove dead fleas. The comb should be used once a week during peak flea season.