Tick season is here and flea season is soon to follow. These pests don’t just annoy our cats and dogs, but they also serve as vectors that spread a large number of diseases between animals.
Vector-borne diseases are transmitted by parasites that carry bacteria, viruses, or other pathogens. These diseases may be dangerous, but pets can usually avoid them with preventative medicine.
Dr. Guilherme Verocai, a clinical assistant professor and director of the Parasitology Diagnostic Laboratory at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, and Dr. Maria Esteve-Gasent, an assistant professor at the CVM, discuss the various vector-borne diseases transmitted by fleas and ticks.
Verocai and Esteve-Gasent, both from the CVM Department of Veterinary Pathobiology, said that vector-borne diseases spread by fleas and ticks present a large threat to our pets and other animals.
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The most common disease-causing flea is the common cat flea, which can spread disease to both cats and dogs. Verocai said fleas transmit bacterial pathogens, so most flea-borne diseases can be treated with antibiotics like doxycycline.
“Most of the life cycle of cat fleas happens in the environment and then they are highly adapted to our household, finding a perfect place to live in crevices in the floor and carpets,” Verocai said. “Therefore, adequate flea control programs should eliminate the fleas found on pets and environmental infestations and prevent subsequent infestations.”
In addition to spreading pathogens, fleas can also cause anemia and intense itching in pets.
“Some dogs may also develop flea allergy dermatitis, which is an allergic reaction to the flea saliva,” Verocai said.
Some fleas can even carry tapeworms, which live in the small intestine of pets but rarely cause symptoms. Dogs and cats can get these tapeworms if they ingest an infected flea while grooming.
Like fleas, ticks can also transmit bacterial pathogens to a variety of animals, including dogs, cats, horses, cattle, and deer.
“Tick control is important not just to take care of pets, but also to prevent establishing a transmission cycle where the pathogens can be transmitted to the humans in the household,” Esteve-Gasent said.
Ticks can transmit many diseases to pets, including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Ticks also spread canine babesiosis, which Esteve-Gasent found in a recent study to be most common in pit bull-type dogs.
Another tick-borne disease of large concern is Tick-Borne Relapsing Fever, which causes low blood platelet counts and increased bleeding. A 2016 project on which Esteve-Gasent collaborated found that this disease is often underdiagnosed in dogs but can be successfully treated with antibiotics.
“Most of the clinical signs associated with tick-borne diseases are lethargy, fever, weight loss, joint pain and swelling, weakness, enlarged spleen or lymph nodes, and changes in gum coloration,” she said.
For both fleas and ticks, there are several topical and oral options for repelling these pests. Pet owners are encouraged to consult with their veterinarian to find the best option for their pet and to remember that canine medications can be dangerous, or even fatal, to cats.
With help from flea and tick medications, your pet can make it through the summer and fall free of parasites and the diseases that come with them.