Auburn veterinarian provides tips on controlling ticks, fleas as weather warms up

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As spring temperatures rise, so does the occurrence of ticks and fleas. Dr. Lindsay Starkey, associate professor in Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, gives some tips on how we can keep the pests away from our pets, as well away from us. Starkey is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Microbiology with a parasitology subspecialty. Her research interests include vector-borne infections, primarily those transmitted by ticks and mosquitoes, and food-borne parasitic diseases.

What is the best way to protect your pets from ticks and fleas?

Not only are fleas and ticks annoying and gross little blood suckers, but they can also serve as vectors for some quite serious pathogens that can infect and cause disease in pets and people. Taking a year-round approach using an integrated strategy for vector control and mitigation of vector-borne pathogens is recommended. There are several in- and on-host products that can protect dogs and/or cats against ticks and fleas (and some of these go beyond to provide additional protection against heartworms and some intestinal parasites). We can also try to alter the pet’s environment and lifestyle to lessen the likelihood of flea/tick interactions as the environment is where fleas and ticks hang out before hitching a ride on our pets. Wildlife and stray animals are good sources for maintaining fleas and ticks in the environment, thus anything to reduce feral animals and wildlife from entering the yard or areas where pets frequent would be beneficial. Also, remaining within a fenced yard or on a leash when outdoors, rather than roaming, can be helpful. There are also environmental products targeted at fleas/ticks (and fire ants and mosquitoes) that can be used in the yard. Being consistent with our parasite preventive products throughout the year is important, as fleas are truly a year-round threat in most geographies, as are ticks when we think about the species variety and all the different tick life stages that are host-seeking. I have folks bringing me ticks that they’ve pulled off their pets or were found crawling on themselves for identification every month of the year.

What diseases can pets get from ticks and fleas?

This list continues to grow. Some pathogens are carried and transmitted by several tick species, while some seem pretty specific to a certain tick species. That being said, any tick that is found attached is a potential risk for a pathogen to be transmitted that could lead to the development of disease. Some of the most notable tick-borne pathogens that can cause canine disease are Borrelia burgdorferi (the agent of Lyme disease), Ehrlichia ewingii and E. canis (agents of Ehrlichiosis in dogs),  (the agent of Rocky Mountain spotted fever), several Babesia spp., Anaplasma phagocytophilum and A. platys, and Hepatozoon americanum. For cats, anaplasmosis (caused by A. phagocytophilum) and cytauxzoonosis (Cytauxzoon felis) seem to be the most well-described, however, researchers are actively looking at Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, hepatozoonosis and others as potential tick-borne diseases in cats as well. A few flea-associated pathogens for dogs and cats include Yersinia pestis (the agent of plague), Mycoplasma spp., Rickettsia spp. and Bartonella spp.

Many of these pathogens can also infect people should the flea or tick feed upon us rather than the pet.

Common clinical signs and abnormalities associated with flea- or tick-borne diseases in dogs and cats include fever, lameness, poor appetite and/or abnormalities on blood work (e.g., thrombocytopenia or anemia) or urinalysis (e.g., protein).

What should we do if we find ticks or fleas on a pet?

Remove it as quickly and safely as possible and save it. For flea removal, a fine-toothed comb should do the trick, however, tick removal is a little more complicated. It is recommended to use a fine pair of forceps or tweezers, or a tool specifically designed for tick-removal, rather than using your fingers. Once you’ve removed the flea/tick, a plastic container or sealable bag are great options for containing it—they can remain at room temperature (and will likely remain alive for quite some time) or placed in a freezer. Providing the flea/tick to your veterinarian can be useful for aiding in the interpretation of diagnostic test results or in discussing best prevention/treatment strategies.  

Can we use human insect repellants, such as OFF, on animals? Or vice versa?

It is not recommended to use human products on animals (e.g., DEET) or animal products on/in humans unless they’ve been tested and approved for safe and effective use across species. One drug compound that is used in dog and human products is permethrin, but the dosages and routes of application vary, thus it should be used according to the directions provided on the product label. Other products available for dogs, although enticing for potential human use, have not been approved as of yet for use in humans. Pet owners should also be careful to not use dog products on cats as the potential for toxicity exists with several dog products should they be mistakenly used on a cat. Consulting with the pet’s veterinarian is the best place to start when determining local risk for parasites and the best product(s) to protect the pets against parasites.

Are “dog ticks” the same ticks that bite humans?

This is a loaded question, as there are technically two types of “dog ticks” by nickname in the U.S.: “American dog ticks” (Dermacentor variabilis) and “Brown dog ticks” (Rhipicephalus sanguineus). Dermacentor species are routinely recovered from people, while reports of Rhipicephalus species feeding on humans are far rarer. These two types of ticks are a great example of how a few ticks prefer certain types of hosts while others are considered to be generalists that can and will feed on a variety of host types. Other ticks commonly recovered from pets and people alike include “Lone star ticks” (Amblyomma americanum), “Gulf Coast ticks” (A. maculatum), “Black-legged ticks” or “deer ticks” (Ixodes scapularis and I. pacificus), and the reportable “Asian longhorned tick” (Haemaphysalis longicornis). Because all of these ticks can be associated with different pathogens and since one is reportable, it remains important to make sure to safely remove and save ticks so that a species identification can be made and appropriate treatment/prevention (and if needed, reporting) can be instituted.

More Information To arrange an interview with our expert, please contact Charles Martin in Auburn Advancement Communications at

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