Pet owners know that fleas are ruthless, bloodthirsty creatures. They may not have gained as much notoriety as the more commonly written about vampire, but these bloodsucking fiends are not to be trifled with. They attack your pets in secret, they hide in their fur, and they do much worse than just cause itching and scratching: In fact, the parasites living inside of these, well, parasites, could introduce a host of harmful bacterial infections into your pet’s bloodstream through a single bite.
While vampires usually just make you a vampire, a flea infestation could make your pet extremely ill. Illnesses from mosquitos, ticks, and flea bites have tripled in the U.S. since 2004, and the threat continues to rise. At best, flea-borne diseases compound your pet’s irritation during the infestation. At worst, they can be fatal.
But you can protect your pet from ticks and fleas by engaging in year-round prevention, keeping a watchful eye, and acting fast if and when symptoms occur.
Take action against the (minuscule) forces of darkness by learning how to prevent, notice, and treat the most common flea-borne diseases.
Omens of the Flea Apocalypse
Most vampires can be scared off with some garlic and a splash of holy water, but fleas are more tenacious and will require dedicated efforts to keep your home and pet safe from an infestation. This is just one reason why fleas are actually far more dangerous than vampires. Also, vampires are not real.
If you’ve ever wanted to reenact Tom Cruise’s signature scene in Risky Business, searching your house for flea dirt is the perfect excuse. Simply walk (or dance) across your house in white socks and see if your socks pick up black specks. If you have carpet, stand still and watch to see if fleas jump onto your white socks. If they do, don’t be too alarmed. There’s plenty you can do to safeguard your home.
Signs of Flea-Borne Diseases
Unlike your common bloodsucking vampire, fleas need no invitation to enter your home. All they need is a ride on your pet. It’s up to you to protect them not only from the discomfort of an infestation but also from far more serious consequences.
In case flea-prevention for your home and pet fails, you should always watch out for signs of these three diseases:
Threat level: High
These nasty creatures come to life when your pet ingests fleas while grooming itself. The tapeworm larva will transform into an adult tapeworm, which can grow in segments up to 28 inches in length, inside your pet’s intestines. Eurgh.
Watch for these signs your pet has a tapeworm:
- They scoot across the floor on their behind to relieve itching.
- You find segments of worm inside their vomit.
How to treat it: The good news is your veterinarian can prescribe your pet an oral or injectable version of a drug called Praziquantel, which dissolves tapeworms inside the intestines. Phew.
#2: Cat Scratch Disease
Threat level: Higher
Scientists estimate that one-third of healthy cats carry this bacterial flea-borne disease. The good news is they’re typically not hurt by it. The bad news is when they get infected, they become carriers who can easily spread the disease to other cats and to humans. It’s kind of like how you don’t know someone is a vampire until it’s daylight.
Your cat could get infected through flea bites or if flea dirt gets into their wounds through scratching and biting at fleas. If an infected cat scratches or bites you and breaks skin, or licks at any open cut you may have, you could also become infected — even if the cat has no symptoms.
Watch for these signs your cat has cat scratch fever (but remember symptoms develop rarely):
- Labored breathing due to inflammation of the heart
- Infection in the mouth, urinary system, and eyes
- Inflammation of other organs
How to treat it in cats:
- While these symptoms are no fun for Fluffy, cats typically bounce back quickly to a healthy state without needing antibiotics or veterinary care.
- If symptoms worsen or don’t improve, you should take your cat to see a vet.
Signs a person is infected with cat scratch fever (besides singing Ted Nugent songs):
- Fever, headache, exhaustion, loss of appetite
- Swollen lymph nodes near the scratch or bite
- Swollen and infected-looking wound
- In extremely rare cases, the disease can cause serious issues — particularly in children under 5 years old and people with weakened immune systems — affecting the brain, eyes, heart, and other internal organs. These may require intensive treatment.
How to treat it in humans:
- Always wash cat bites and scratches with soap and running water to prevent infection.
- Contact your doctor if you develop any symptoms of cat scratch disease.
#3: Plague, or Black Death
Threat level: Deadly
The plague has been on a reign of terror since the 6th century. Today, it’s most active in the Western U.S. among wild animal colonies with heavy flea infestations. Humans and pets are most likely to contract the disease when large populations of wild animals die and fleas vacate their deceased hosts in droves.
Cats become very ill from plague and can infect humans simply by coughing into the air, while dogs are less likely to contract the disease but are more likely to bring infected fleas inside the home.
The plague progresses in severity through three stages: bubonic (the initial and most common form, which develops within a week of getting infected), septicemic (a progression that can cause shock and organ failure), and pneumonic (which develops when the bacteria infect the lungs). Without prompt treatment, cases of pneumonic plague almost always end in death.
Signs your pet has plague:
- Swollen lymph nodes, head, and neck
- Fever, vomiting, dehydration, diarrhea
- Extreme loss of appetite
- Discharge from the eyes
- Mouth ulcers
How to treat it: Plague survival rates are better the earlier you can get help for your pet. Visit your vet immediately to get a prescription for antibiotics and have a flea-control serum applied on your animal to prevent further spread of the disease.
How to Keep Your Pet Healthy
Using a year-round flea preventative on your pet is the simplest way to ward off fleas and the diseases they carry.
Parastar for Dogs, Parastar Plus for Dogs, and EasySpot for Cats don’t protect against vampires, but they are waterproof, easy-to-apply treatments that protect your pet from ticks, fleas, chewing lice, and mites for 30 days. These easy monthly applications will give you peace of mind knowing your pet is safe from the dangerous of flea-borne diseases.
Try again next time, minuscule forces of darkness.