Flea & Tick Control

- Control of these blood-sucking arthropods -

Summary: To save time and effort most people will eventually opt for one of the new pet medications (insecticides) that controls both fleas and ticks in one easy step. Use this article to make an informed decision about which flea and tick control method to use.

Jack DeAngelis, PhD
OSU Ext. Entomologist (ret.)

Flea control in homes

The most important thing to keep in mind is that both adult fleas and flea larvae must be controlled at the same time. Since larvae are found in the pet's bedding and adults spend most of their time on your pet, both places should be treated. Pets can be treated with flea and tick shampoo and combing but new topical medications make flea control much easier and nearly 100% effective (see details below).

Any indoor space can be treated with the insect growth regulator called methoprene to prevent larval fleas from developing into adults thus breaking the life cycle and effectively ending the infestation in the home. See Related Articles below for details about using methoprene.

flea larva

flea larva. This stage lives in the animal's "nest" or bedding. Larvae do not bite but live on debris in the nest.

Tick control

Like fleas, ticks (right) feed on the blood of their host animals such as mammals, birds and reptiles. Ticks hop onto their host animal to feed for a period (1 to several days) then drop off to digest the meal. All stages require a blood meal in order to grow.

The only way to effectively prevent tick bites is to treat the animal with an insecticide. These insecticides can be delivered either by a slow-release flea and tick collar (see Do Flea & Tick Collars Work?) or an insecticide applied directly to the animal's skin. Some "topical medications" that are effective against fleas are also effective against ticks.

Ticks do not infest homes but can be carried indoors on pets and may sometimes be transferred from pets to people by close contact. It is therefore not necessary to treat indoors for ticks.

hard tick (unfed)

tick (unfed). After feeding on blood from an animal host the body of this tick will swell to several times its original size.

Simple flea & tick control

Most people will eventually opt for some type of insecticide-based flea and tick control because older methods require so much time and effort. Insecticidal medications are somewhat more expensive but they do save time, and, for many people, time equals money. Also, insecticides such as flea collars or topical medications are the only realistic option to prevent tick bites.

There are two different types of flea control medications. One type is applied as drops of liquid to the pet's skin. These are called "topical" or "spot-on" medications and some control ticks as well. The second type is given orally and are sometimes called "systemic" because once taken the medications are absorbed and circulate in the animal's blood. These oral medications typically do not control ticks.

Spot-on flea medications

Frontline Top Spot (tm) is my first choice for an all-purpose, topical flea and tick control medication for both dogs and cats, and Frontline Plus (tm) adds methoprene to the basic ingredient in Frontline Top Spot. I prefer to apply methoprene as a separate application (see Using Insect Growth Regulators for Flea Control). Advantage (tm) is my second choice for an all-purpose topical flea control medication but Advantage does not control ticks.

A number of lower-cost, spot-on products as well as K9 Advantix (tm) contain the active ingredient permethrin or some other pyrethroid type insecticide. I do not recommend using these products because of the dangers they pose to cats that might come in contact with these insecticides.

Caution: Do not use flea & tick medications that contain permethrin, or any pyrethroid insecticide, on cats or even in households that have cats. Certain pyrethroid insecticides like permethrin are toxic to cats and should not be used around them. Check the label and avoid products whose active ingredient ends in "-thrin" such as permethrin or cyphenothrin if you have cats living in the house.

Other flea medications

Program (tm) is an oral medication that acts as an insect growth regulator, preventing larval fleas from maturing into adult fleas. It is administered once a month. Program (tm) does not control adult fleas or ticks directly. Capstar (tm) is also an oral medication that acts quickly to control adult fleas (not ticks) on dogs and cats. It is safe for young animals (see label) so might be used to quickly control a flea infestation in very young animals that cannot be treated by other means.

Whichever medication you decide to use don't forget to also treat your pet's sleeping areas with methoprene for long-term flea control (see Using Methoprene To Stop Flea Development).

Precautions with any new medication

Like any medication there is a small percentage of animals that will react badly to any of the flea and tick treatments. The risk is small compared to the benefits but these medications are, after all, essentially insecticides. To minimize the risks of an adverse reaction you should: (1) Always apply the topical, spot-on, medications in a way that prevents the animal from licking on the spot where the medications are applied; usually this is the pet's back, at base of neck. You may need to watch the animal for a few hours to make sure they are not licking the application site. (2) Carefully follow package instructions as to dosage and timing. If your pet is only a few pounds over the weight limit for a particular dose you may want to use the lower weight range dose. (3) Split the dose the first time you use it. When using a new medication on our dogs we always apply just half the recommended dose then wait 24 hours and apply the second half-dose if all goes well. If an adverse reaction does happen it is better to have only a half dose in the animal's system.

Related Articles

How Fleas Develop in Our Homes

Flea Control Without Expensive Pet Meds

What are Ticks?

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