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Protecting Dogs from Fleas and Ticks

Fleas and ticks are nasty little parasites that commonly affect our dogs in Australia. The effects of fleas can vary from mildly annoying right through to debilitating flea allergy dermatitis or even life-threatening anaemia

Paralysis ticks are invariably deadly without effective, early treatment. As with most things, prevention of fleas and ticks is far better than a cure advises Dr Joanna Paul from Creature Clinic


Fleas are the most common parasite of our pets. They are also the most common cause of allergies. Adult fleas lay eggs on their host (including dogs and cats) that then roll off into the environment. It’s important to be aware that dogs don’t get fleas from other dogs – they get them from the environment. 

This means your dog doesn’t have to come into contact with any other dogs to catch fleas. They don’t even have to leave the backyard, because fleas can be brought in by neighbourhood cats and other animals. 

Fleas are prolific egg layers, being able to lay up to 40 – 50 eggs every day for around 50 days. A single female flea can produce up to 2000 eggs, so it’s easy to imagine how quickly they can build up in the environment.

As all these eggs develop, pupae can lie quietly inside your home and yard for weeks or even months, waiting until the conditions are right to emerge. 

This is when they mature into adult fleas, jump aboard our pets, and suck their blood.

Some pets develop a severe allergy to flea bites known as flea allergy dermatitis (FAD). These poor animals can be unbearably itchy and do significant damage to themselves trying to scratch and relieve the discomfort. 

The symptoms of FAD can occur due to exposure to just a single flea, and may persist long after the fleas have gone. For this reason we sometimes don’t actually find fleas on these itchy, uncomfortable dogs. Not being able to find a flea does not rule out a flea allergy. 

Fleas are also responsible for transmitting the dog tapeworm (Dipylidium caninum) to dogs, cats and even humans. 

This means by using consistent, effective flea prevention we are often pretty safe from those tapeworms too, but it is still a very good idea to use a product containing praziquantel at least once every 6 months for tapeworm prevention.


You just use your monthly flea preventative, right? No. Unfortunately it’s not that simple. 

Only a few hatched adults live on our pets. The remaining eggs, pupae and larvae are spread throughout the environment. This equates to about 5% of the fleas being on the dog, and 95% hiding in the home and backyard. Veterinarians are regularly told by pet owners that the product they have tried diligently hasn’t worked. 

This is such a frustrating situation for pet owner, vet and pet alike, but doesn’t necessarily mean that there is anything wrong with that particular product. Far more commonly, it means that the adult fleas on the dog have been treated successfully but the environmental infestation hasn’t been dealt with adequately

Just one small flea infested area, whether it be a kennel, a carpeted area or a big pile of leaves in the backyard, is enough to keep that flea cycle going.


We need to treat every single animal in the household. Don’t forget the cats! They may not be showing any signs of fleas but are very likely carrying some. Use an effective flea product and groom thoroughly. If you are not sure which product is the best option for your dog, the best person to talk to is your vet. Flea collars, flea powers, and flea shampoos do not tend to be effective and vary in levels of toxicity to the pet.

#1. Clean all affected indoor areas
Vacuum carpets and furniture then dispose of the vacuum dust in a sealed bag. Wash all bedding weekly using hot water and hang out in the sunshine to dry. Flea bombs can be helpful in cleaning up environments but need to be used with care. Follow instructions carefully and vacate premises for a suitable amount of time (usually 2 hours) after use.

#2. Clean up outdoor areas
Immature flea stages love warm, moist environments. They don’t like drying out. If protected from drying, pupae can survive for up to 140 days in the environment. It helps to clean up any piles of organic material (leaves etc.), trying specifically to clean any sheltered and moist areas.

#3. Continue to use an effective flea preventative to prevent re-infestation. Remember to read labels carefully and follow directions. Speak to your vet with any questions, especially if considering using more than one product at the same time.


#1. Garlic is used by some people as a natural alternative to repel fleas. The theory is that it makes the blood taste unpleasant. Unfortunately there is no scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of garlic as a flea preventative, and while it may help to some degree, there is an important downside.

Garlic is toxic to dogs and causes anaemia due to destruction of red blood cells. This effect is dose-dependent, so the more garlic you give, the more serious the effects. Sometimes people misinterpret this to mean that smaller doses are non-toxic. This is not true. Red blood cells are still being destroyed, just not in large enough numbers for the dog to show obvious symptoms of anaemia such as pale gums and lethargy.

#2. Diatomaceous earth is a naturally occurring silica. It acts by absorbing the protective wax layer of the insect’s cuticle. This leads water loss from the flea’s body and death by desiccation. Its effectiveness is variable and products may be toxic to humans because it contains a lot of silica which causes lung disease if inhaled.

Remember, just because someone says they have never treated for fleas and never had a problem, or alternatively have used an unproven product or remedy and never had a problem, it doesn’t mean that approach is effective. 
Association does not equal causation.
In other words, it’s a bit like saying you wear purple socks every day and mosquitoes bite your friends but leave you alone, therefore the purple socks must repel mosquitoes!


Paralysis ticks (Ixodes Holocyclus) live along the east coast of Australia where they can experience the warm, humid conditions required for their survival, and tick season peaks in spring to mid-summer. They sometimes hitch a ride in tents or camping gear and come home with us from holidays, so pets can experience tick paralysis a long way from the coast. 

Paralysis tick prevention is a very serious matter, because if your dog gets one and does not receive treatment, he will die.

Tick eggs can be found in big pile of 3000 or so, usually hidden amongst some leaves or under the bark of a tree. After a couple of months, some of these eggs hatch into larvae. These guys are six-legged critters that are smaller than a pin head. They then climb some vegetation and attach themselves to a passing host. This would normally be a bandicoot or possum that has developed some immunity to the ticks, but can also be a dog, cow or other animal. Paralysis ticks then drop to the ground, moult, grow themselves an extra pair of legs, and change their name from larva to nymph.

The nymphs then climb some grass in order to attach to a second passing host, and feed on their blood for a few days before dropping off. When these guys moult several weeks later they become adults and this is when they are really dangerous.

The female seeks out a third host and jumps aboard. There she meets a male, gets pregnant, and starts engorging on the host’s blood. At this point the situation has become deadly. She continues to engorge for somewhere between one and three weeks. When she’s had her fill she drops off, lays a few thousand eggs, and dies.


Paralysis ticks produce a nasty toxin (holocyclotoxin) in their saliva that affects the nervous system of the host. While the larvae and nymphs do produce a small amount of toxin, it is usually the hungry female adults that cause paralysis.

* Early Signs of Tick Paralysis
Symptoms start to occur around four to six days after the adult female tick has attached. The first thing that may be noticed is weakness or wobbliness in the back legs, sitting suddenly while walking, or being unable to jump up, for example into the car or onto the couch. There may also be vomiting and/or a lot of drooling, and different sounding bark.

* * Later Signs of Tick Paralysis
As things progress, the dog is no longer able to stand without assistance and paralysis ascends to include the front legs. Breathing becomes laboured.

* * * Severe Signs of Tick Paralysis
At this late stage the dog will lie on his side, no longer able to lift his body into an upright position. There is severe respiratory difficulty caused by paralysis of the respiratory muscles and death is imminent.


Keep the dog as comfortable, quiet and stress-free as possible. These poor babies need to be treated gently and softly with extra TLC. Any stress at all will exacerbate symptoms, particularly in a dog that is having difficulty breathing, and may be the difference between life and death. We need quiet, dim lighting, and calm interactions.

#1. Remove the tick 

Finding a tick can be really difficult. Most are attached somewhere on the front part of the dog’s body (90% from the shoulders forward), but they can be tucked away under collars, inside ears, between toes, or even attached to the anus.

Ticks can be particularly difficult to find on long-haired breeds, who may need to be clipped to enable a thorough search. A careful, step by step approach from nose to tail is least likely to miss anything. 

If you find a tick don’t stop looking, because there may be more than one! The most important thing when it comes to removing the tick is not to squeeze the body. This is where the salivary glands are located and doing so could inject more toxin into the dog. 

The tick should be grasped beneath its body and removed quickly with as little manipulation as possible. It’s better not to damage the tick, but in animals it doesn’t usually matter if the mouth parts are left behind.


There’s no one way of removing a paralysis tick, and it depends on availability of implements and how the person removing the tick is used to doing it. Tick removers are commonly available and inexpensive and can be a good item to have on hand in your pet first aid kit.

#2. Neutralising the toxin

If the pet hasn’t shown any symptoms of tick toxicity yet, it may be okay just to hospitalise her in a vet clinic and monitor carefully. They often continue to worsen for 24 to 48 hours after the tick is removed, so professional veterinary care is important.

If the dog has begun to show signs of paralysis, she needs to be treated with hyperimmune tick antiserum. This will neutralise circulating toxins – but cannot help with toxin that has already taken effect. There is a delay of around 12 hours before signs of paralysis begin to reverse. These poor dogs often need very attentive supportive care during this time, as they may not be able to move or even breathe for themselves.


It really is much cheaper, easier and safer to prevent tick paralysis than to try and treat it once it’s happening. Research has found that 82% of dog owners who live in paralysis tick areas are not treating correctly to protect their dog from the deadly paralysis tick, but many of them believe they are.

A third of dog owners living in tick zones have had their dog or a dog owned by someone they know, die from a paralysis tick. For those of us who don’t live in a tick area, we often don’t even realise when we’re are holidaying in a tick zone with our pets. If you’re not sure whether you are treating your pet adequately to prevent paralysis ticks, please speak to your vet.

There are a few things you can do to help avoid tick paralysis in your furkids. 

1. Avoid – Stay away from tick zones, or at least keep your pets out of scrubby bush areas where ticks are likely to jump on and attach.
2. Check your pet every day – if you’re in a tick area, you really should do a full body check of your dog with your hands every single day.
3. Use an effective tick control product – It’s best to discuss with your veterinarian which product is the best option for your pet. 

No product is 100% effective, which is why you still need to check your pet every day. In summary, be alert but not alarmed!

Dr Joanna Paul is a small animal veterinarian from Melbourne, Australia. After graduating with honours from the University of Melbourne in 2006, she began her veterinary career in an animal shelter. 

This valuable experience gave her not only strong foundations in medicine and surgery, but a determination to work in partnership with pet owners to ensure their pets stay as happy and healthy as possible, so that they can always be much loved members of the family.

Joanna divides her time between two gorgeous dogs of her own, three children and work.

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