Fleas and ticks are more than just an annoyance to pets — and to pet owners, who have to listen to the scratching or remove the ticks. These unwanted critters are a potentially significant source of disease, misery and expense.
As the weather warms up, flea and tick season kicks into high gear. And that’s when claims at Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) for health problems related to these pests pick up, too.
As chief veterinary officer for VPI, I have both professional and personal experience with fleas. VPI’s offices are in Southern California, one of those places where the external parasites that plague pets never feel the effect of snowstorms and freezing temperatures on their life cycles. But even in parts of the country that experience a deep freeze in the winter months, fleas and ticks are a perennial problem.
Fleas and Ticks, Coast to Coast
When we discuss fleas and ticks, we're not talking about just two kinds of creatures: The Companion Animal Parasite Council has identified eight species of ticks and five species of fleas that prey on pets. Some of these parasites aren’t terribly picky about where they land, either — neither the “cat” flea nor the “dog” flea stick to the species it's named for, and ticks hop indiscriminately onto pets and people. As a result, people and pets often share some of the diseases caused by the pathogens that these parasites transmit, including Lyme disease.
People and pets also, of course, share the scratching. You’re probably already feeling itchy just reading about fleas and ticks, so I’ll go right to our VPI claims data for 2013. In order of frequency, here are the top five flea and tick related claims:
1. External Parasites, General. Many pet owners who bring their animals in because they are scratching are surprised to find out that their pets have fleas. They may assume that their animals could be protected by being kept exclusively indoors, or they have used a flea-control strategy that wasn’t effective, such as a folk remedy (rather than a prescription provided by a veterinarian). Average claim: $73.
2. Flea Allergy Dermatitis. For many pets with fleas, sound veterinary advice on effective flea control resolves the problem. Unfortunately, some pets have bigger problems: They are allergic to flea saliva, which causes skin irritation and inflammation that can lead to more aggressive scratching and chewing, followed by infection. Average claim: $102.
3. Ehrlichia. The first of the tick-borne diseases shows up at No. 3. Ehrlichia, along with anaplasma or other so-called rickettsial diseases, are caused when ticks infect the animals they feed on with microscopic organisms. Dogs with Ehrlichia are typically brought in for fever, lethargy, depression, lack of appetite and weight loss. Average claim: $223.
4. Lyme Disease. Most people are familiar with Lyme disease in humans, but many are not aware that dogs can be infected, too. Lyme disease is also caused when ticks infect the animals they feed on with the microscopic organisms associated with the disease. Dogs with Lyme disease can have symptoms that include fever, shifting leg lameness, swollen joints, enlarged lymph nodes, lethargy, depression and lack of appetite. Average claim: $209.
5. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Dogs all over are brought to the vet with fever, joint and muscle pain, not just in the Rockies. In fact, less than 5 percent of human cases of this disease are from the Rocky Mountain region; the southern Atlantic coastal states account for the highest number of cases in humans, although Oklahoma and the Pacific Northwest share a relatively high ranking as well. Average claim: $397.
Parasite Prevention Is Key
Veterinarians stress preventive care for good reason, and that’s especially true when it comes to fleas and ticks. While a simple, overlooked flea infestation often can be resolved by following your veterinarian’s advice, for some of the other health issues on this list, prevention is truly the only way to go. In the case offlea allergy dermatitis, for example, every flea bite can trigger a flare-up of misery. That makes flea control a critical part of maintaining quality of life for these pets.
Ask your veterinarian about recommendations for effective parasite prevention and control. Though most of these strategies will likely involve flea-and-tick preventives, other strategies, such as frequent vacuuming and removing ticks promptly, can be highly effective as well.