How to keep your pets free from ticks and fleas

The warm, furry bodies of mammals like dogs and cats provide the purrfect hiding place for external parasites like ticks and fleas. So, if you have pets, you will inevitably attract these pests. Not only are they bad for your pets’ health – causing allergies and disease; they can also inflict bites and even (in the case of ticks) fever and illness on you and your family.

In this article, we comprehensively explore the reasons why you’ll want to keep ticks and fleas as far away from your pets as possible; the signs that your pet may be playing host to external parasites; how to remove a tick from your pet; and how to repel ticks and fleas from your pet and home for good.

What do ticks and fleas do to pets?

As parasites, ticks and fleas feed off of pets’ blood without bringing any benefit to their host. They need to take a blood meal in order to start reproducing, so once they climb onto your pet (generally when pets are outdoors or are around other animals playing host to ticks and fleas), find a safe, warm spot on their skin and bite them in order to feed. Both ticks and fleas can cause health problems in your pet, such as the following:

Flea bite dermatitis

Despite being so tiny, fleas bite into pets’ skin and their saliva can trigger a huge allergic reaction in some dogs and cats. This allergy is called flea bite dermatitis, which causes a persistent itch that gets no relief by scratching. Dogs and cats can end up scratching so relentlessly that they break their skin and can end up with a secondary infection from bacteria entering the wound. Flea bite dermatitis should not be treated at home – you need to bring your pet to the vet for a diagnosis and the appropriate treatment. The vet will also recommend a preventative treatment to keep fleas off your pet in future.


Another consequence of a flea infestation is the introduction of tapeworms to your pet. The adult flea plays host to a tapeworm egg. When your pet is scratching and biting the fleas on their skin, they can swallow a flea. If that flea is host to a tapeworm egg, the egg gets transported into your pet’s gastrointestinal tract, which offers the perfect conditions for hatching the tapeworm. The tapeworm has hooked mouthparts, which anchors it to the pet’s intestinal wall and allows it to feed off the nutrients being digested and absorbed.

Usually, a healthy pet does not suffer any symptoms from a tapeworm, but they can cause malnourishment in unhealthy and juvenile pets. Regular deworming will also help to keep internal parasites like tapeworms at bay, but preventative tick and flea treatments will reduce your pet’s exposure to fleas and the tapeworm eggs they may carry.


Ticks and fleas feed on pets’ blood. When an animal has an infestation of ticks and/or fleas, they can suffer more blood loss than is healthy, reducing their red blood cell count. The reduction in red blood cells means less oxygen in their blood, which can produce symptoms such as lethargy, panting, pale gums and confusion. Anaemia is a serious condition and pets with tick and flea infestations must get veterinary treatment as soon as possible.

Tick diseases

Ticks may be small, but they can leave very serious diseases in their wake. Dogs are especially susceptible to tick-borne diseases like biliary and canine ehrlichiosis, which can be completely avoided if you treat your pet with preventative medicine. Symptoms of these diseases include:

  • low/no appetite
  • weight loss
  • joint pain
  • swollen lymph glands
  • fever
  • secondary infection from scratched skin
  • lethargy and depression

Tick bite fever and biliary can also make pets look jaundiced – with the whites of their eyes and their skin and gums looking yellowish. This means that the tick fever has affected their liver, at which point the pet needs urgent veterinary attention or they may die from the tick disease.  

How to know if your pet has a tick or flea infestation

The first sign of a tick or flea infestation would be the parasites themselves – crawling (ticks) or jumping (fleas) on your pet’s skin and fur – as well as the presence of flea dirt. The parasites are a lot more visible on short-haired dogs with flat coats, but you will also feel engorged ticks if you run your hand over a long-haired pet coat. With an infestation, you may also find ticks lodged in the soft parts of the pet’s body, such as in their face, ears, armpits and groin area.

If your pet has a tick infestation, you may also find ticks on the floor near to them. Ticks that have had their fill of blood will be engorged and simply drop off your pet and try to find shelter in the environment. Fleas (during their complex life cycle) need to spend part of their time in the larval stage, dormant in the environment. They seek dark crevices in flooring, beds and carpets as they become adults, and may cause an infestation in your home. If you find flea bites on your ankles, this is a good indication of an infestation. By treating your pets for ticks and fleas, as well as vacuuming and cleaning regularly around your pet’s common areas, you can prevent a flea infestation.

How to remove ticks from your pets

When you find a tick (or two or a few) on your pet, it’s recommended to remove it straight away. This will prevent the tick from reproducing and from causing any illnesses in your pet. You can skip the old wives’ tales about drowning the tick in oil, apple cider vinegar, alcohol, etc. while it’s still attached to your pet. Rather take the safer approach of removing it using one of these methods:

Twirly-whirly method

For the sake of your pet’s health, leave your squeamishness at the door. Use your finger or an earbud and make little circles on/around the tick so that it twirls around in one direction. This will ‘bother’ the tick to the point that it will let go of your pet’s skin and try to get away.


If you would prefer a more direct approach, simply grip the tick’s head with a pair of sharp-tipped tweezers, as close to your pet’s skin as possible. With a firm, constant pressure, pull upwards so that the tick lets go or comes away. Be careful to not squeeze the tick too tightly, and don’t rip it too quickly, as this can break off the mouthparts. You don’t want to leave any pieces of the tick on/in your pet’s skin.

A tick picker

Similar to tweezers, a tick picker is made for removing ticks. It has a wire loop that is placed over the tick’s head, and as you pull the tick picker back, it firmly draws the tick out of your pet’s skin. You can find the tick picker in the grooming section of the vet shop.     

When removing ticks, always have a cup of rubbing alcohol at hand. As you remove a tick, drop it into the liquid to drown – don’t return it to the environment or it will simply find another mammal to feed from. Remember to disinfect any tick bite marks and keep an eye on them to ensure they heal nicely. Check on your pet’s general health and look out for any symptoms of tick-borne diseases.

Tick and flea repellents for pets

It’s better to keep ticks and fleas off your pets than to have to treat them for these parasites. It’s also much cheaper to administer preventative medicine than to cure tick diseases or flea allergy dermatitis. If you regularly apply tick and flea prevention medication, you won’t have to worry about external parasites on your pets or in your home. Choose from the following options:

  • tablets and capsules
  • tick and flea collars
  • chews
  • spot-on treatment
  • powders
  • sprays
  • ultrasonic tick repelling collar
  • tick and flea shampoo

Have a look at your lifestyle as well as your pets and their habits: if you have a blended pet home with dogs and cats, the cats should never be exposed to the parasite medication for dogs, which is toxic to them. In this instance, your dog should have a chewable tablet rather than have a spot-on treatment applied to them, while your cat can wear a flea collar or use a spot-on treatment.

Dogs that love to swim or who are groomed often for dog shows may not be the best candidates for spot-on treatment. If you have young children, it may be safer to use a non-toxic treatment like an ultrasonic collar or a chewable anti-parasitic medication. Always read the package inserts and instructions so that you know what dosage to give your pets and how often to top up their treatments.

It’s important to groom your pets regularly, as this will give you the opportunity to feel their skin and fur to check for ticks and fleas. If your cat spends time outdoors or you take your dog for a walk, there will be a chance that they come into contact with parasites. Ticks and fleas lie in wait for a warm-blooded animal to pass by, they climb or jump onto your pet’s coat, and suddenly these parasites are introduced to your home environment. You can prevent this by doing a quick check before bringing your pets indoors again.

Do ticks and fleas also bite humans?

Ticks and fleas will bite any warm-blooded mammal, which means humans are also on the menu. Protecting your pets from ticks and fleas means you also protect you and your family from tick and flea bites. Flea bites can be extremely itchy, while tick bites don’t hurt. However, you can get nasty tick bite fever with flu-like symptoms, about 10 days after a tick bite. If you’ve been bitten by a tick, take note of the date, and if you experience a severe headache, fever, and aches and pains in your body approximately a week and a half after the bite, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Are ticks and fleas dormant in winter?

In colder climates, ticks and fleas may be more dormant in winter than in summer. However, South Africa’s temperate climate does not get cold enough to keep them away during winter months. This means that your pets’ preventative tick and flea medication needs to be applied all year ‘round. Remember to also vacuum around their beds and common areas, and wash their bedding, toys and protective covers regularly.

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