Surprising Problems From Ticks and Fleas

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on February 08, 2015
3 min read

You know that fleas and ticks can make your pets scratch and itch. But sometimes those nasty pests can cause more serious problems.

Ticks can spread serious illnesses. "Pet owners have a healthy respect for the potential of ticks to transmit disease," says Byron L. Blagburn, PhD, a professor at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. "Most of that is born out of the notorious fear of Lyme disease."

What’s surprising is that these threats are spreading into different parts of the country. Lyme disease, for example, used to be concentrated in the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and parts of the West Coast. Now it’s spreading further South, Blagburn says. The reason: Ticks that carry the disease are moving into new territory.

Climate change may be partly to blame, but also more people are living closer to nature. Wildlife preservation and green-friendly building practices bring our homes closer to deer, raccoons, and coyotes. As much as we may enjoy seeing these animals, they can harbor flea and tick populations, says Clark K. Fobian, DVM, past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Ticks can also pass along other serious diseases, from Rocky Mountain spotted fever to diseases that attack blood cells. The symptoms are often vague like fever, loss of appetite, joint pain, and swollen lymph nodes. That makes them hard to diagnose unless you see the ticks.

Ticks can also cause paralysis. The tick shoots a toxin into your pet that makes your pet’s legs and muscles go limp. Fortunately, once ticks are removed, animals often make a quick recovery, Fobian says. It's very, very rare for a person to go limp from a tick.

Some of the most common threats caused by fleas are:

  • Anemia and low iron levels: Fleas eat 15 times their body weight in blood. With small animals or those covered by hundreds of fleas, the insects can literally suck their blood out. Typical signs are pale gums and general lack of energy.
  • Tapeworms: This happens when a dog or cat swallows a flea that is infected with tapeworm larvae.
  • Allergies: Some pets are allergic to flea saliva. Reactions can be extreme.
  • Cat scratch fever: Although infected cats usually don’t show symptoms, they can pass this disease to humans.

Check your pet regularly. It usually takes 24-48 hours for a tick to pass along an infection, Blagburn says. If you spot a tick, put on latex gloves and grasp it as close to the skin as possible. Pull firmly, straight out. You can also use tweezers or flea remover devices sold at stores. Try not to leave any pieces behind, because they can cause infections. And you can always just take your pet to the vet’s office to have the pest removed.

Of course, the best thing to do is use regular flea and tick prevention. These convenient products can be used a number of different ways -- pills, collars, on the skin -- depending upon your pet. They really work and are your first line of defense, Fobian says. Talk to your vet to see which product is best for your pet.