Why Fleas And Ticks Suck For Dogs!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014  |  Kate

Fleas, ticks and mites

Here's another extract from my new book Top Dog.

Fleas, ticks and mites are disgusting. They suck up to our pets – taking blood, spreading disease, laying eggs, making new parasites by the thousand and leaving them all over the house. Immature fleas give our dogs tapeworm, too. No, fleas, ticks and mites are not a happy part of the dog landscape.

Most of the fleas you’ll find pimping off your dog are actually cat fleas.

They have flatter heads, all the better for moving swiftly through a dog’s fur. Fleas are opportunists, they’ll jump on to any mammal if there’s a free blood meal going. And if they can get a two-for-one deal by laying eggs on their host at the same time, then so much the better. All aboard! 

You’ll know your dog’s got fleas when you find him chewing his paws and pads, and scratching at his groin, armpits, belly or under his chin where he lies down, either on the floor or in his bed.

And what you need to know is that for every flea you spot on your dog there are nine more elsewhere, in your house, at various stages of development, and that you will have to treat the whole house to make sure they’re all dealt with. Prevention is way easier to deal with than infestation.

This is how it works. A female flea lays up to 50 eggs a day on your dog. Flea eggs are white and a bit smaller than a grain of rice. The eggs get shaken off as your dog goes about his business to land on the carpet, his bed (or yours), and in between floorboards. In a few days or weeks, larvae hatch.

The larvae move along using tiny hairs on their bodies, finding food – dirt, flea faeces and dust – which as we know is mostly human skin: is yours crawling yet? When large enough, they spin themselves into a protective cocoon to develop into an adult, just like a moth or a butterfly, where they wait... and wait... and wait. Until it’s ‘time’.

While the adult flea is safely tucked up inside its cocoon, it’s golden. It can hunker down in there for months, years, until the conditions are right for it to hatch for maximum effect. The adult flea only emerges if it’s pretty sure there’s a host close by. It detects this by vibration, changes in temperature or even carbon dioxide levels as your pet breathes into the carpet.

As a for instance, I bought a flat in 1999, moved in and no hint of a flea. In 2001 I got my cats Pearl and Dave from the most excellent Celia Hammond Trust which was just down the road. Well. Within two weeks that flat was jumping. And yet the cats had been free and clear of worms and fleas before they came to me – I gave my cats fleas! Who does that?

The pupae had been hiding in the carpet all this time; it’s the only thing the previous owners left behind, that and a really skanky sofa I ditched on day one. One whiff of a furry coat was all it took to wake them up and invite them to jump aboard. Flea pupae are ticking parasite time bombs. Fact.


This has got to be the most bottom-clenching parasite of the lot. The two most common ticks found in the UK are deer or sheep ticks (in the countryside) and hedgehog ticks (more urban) but a tick is a tick is a tick; it will hop onto anyone it can leech a meal off. In the garden you’ll find ticks on foxes, squirrels and blackbirds as well as on the aforementioned hedgehogs.

Ticks are the consummate traveller. Compact, self-contained and discreet – they move from place to place, practically unseen. A tick will be sitting on a leaf, minding its own business, next to a well-worn path, when your dog comes snuffling about, as dogs are inclined to do. The tick, feeling a bit peckish, will hop onto your dog and make its way to a part of your dog’s body that’s nice and warm and not too furry. Now it settles down to eat. And this is the horror film part.

A tick has no head, contrary to popular belief; it doesn’t need one. The tick makes a pit in the skin – the longer it stays there the deeper the pit. The pit is a reservoir for collecting the blood. Once settled in, it releases a cement-like substance that sets, making the tick harder to remove.

A tick can suck blood for up to two days in one sitting. It feeds by anaesthetising an area of skin and cutting into it. It then inserts a barbed feeding tube into the hole and starts to suck. As well as blood it’s also sucking up any disease pathogens its host is carrying, to pass on to the next host, or injecting disease into its host as its saliva passes down the feeding tube. When it’s satiated, the tick drops off and moves on to the next stage of development.

So ticks spread disease, and if they’re not carrying any, the bite itself will get infected if left untreated. Risk of infection is greatest in spring and summer in the UK – the most common tick-borne infection being Lyme disease (borreliosis), which is spreading quite rapidly. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) now monitors Lyme disease and since 2010 it has become a requirement of every microbiology lab to report any diagnoses of it. Any mammal is susceptible, so use the information in this chapter to protect your dog, yourself and anyone you go a-wandering with.

Lyme disease bacteria migrate into the connective tissues in the body, spread out and eventually enter the heart, joints and brain tissue. The infection weakens your immune response, so the first thing you know about it is when your dog appears under the weather.

Mites are a whole other story. You'll have to read the book to find out what those grim little beggars get up to.

Top Dog is out on November 6th 2014 and is available to pre-order here or on Amazon where it will also be available on Kindle Fire.