Fleas and Ticks: What’s the Difference?

Fleas and Ticks: What’s the Difference?

When it comes to bug bites for people and pets alike, fleas and ticks are often the most common culprits. While their bites are usually just itchy and annoying, these parasites can transmit unhealthy (and even dangerous) pathogens and diseases while feeding on their hosts. Classifying which pest you’ve encountered is important to properly safeguard you, your family, and your pets from further bites or harmful infestations.


Fleas are much smaller than ticks. In fact, adult fleas are about the size of a pinhead, often only appearing as dark specks within the hair or fur of their host. If these specks are stationary, you might actually be looking at what is known as “flea dirt”, a.k.a. flea excrement. If the specks are jumping, that’s the telltale sign of flea activity.

Many fleas hatch from their eggs on their host and will live their short lives without ever leaving to find another. Fleas prefer animal hosts, but are known to make themselves at home on people, too. If they do travel from one host to the next, they do so with their incredible jumping capabilities. Fleas are wingless insects, but can jump up to 100 times their length. A flea infestation was most likely introduced through a four-legged host, who likely became infested through fleas leaping from another cat or dog.

Fleas multiply prolifically, and a female can lay up to fifty eggs at one time. Each of these fleas, when full maturity is reached, is capable of eating about 15 times their weight, meaning an abundance of itchy, irritating bites for the host. Intense itching is usually the first noticeable sign of fleas. Because they’re so small, they’re easily confused at first as dirt specks or crumbs until their population has grown to large numbers and their presence as invading insects becomes apparent.


Ticks are nearly always larger in size than fleas, especially at full maturity. These parasites aren’t six-legged insects; they’re actually close cousins to spiders in the arachnid family. Their circular bodies vary in color from grey, red, black, and brown to even golden hues.

Ticks appear differently at various stages in their feeding cycle as well. A hungry tick is only about ⅛ of an inch, while a well-fed tick’s body can swell up to the size of a small acorn. When swollen, it can be difficult to spot the tick’s eight short legs.

Ticks, unlike fleas, prefer a variety of hosts. They will latch onto any warm-blooded creature for up to several weeks until they’ve had their blood meal and unhook themselves, falling to the ground to rest and wait for the next host to come along. Unlike fleas, ticks aren’t likely to congregate or cause an indoor infestation. All warm-blooded bodies, people included, are more susceptible to tick bites when wandering in the great outdoors.

Neither fleas nor ticks can fly. While fleas jump, ticks creep up the branches, twigs, and leaves most likely to be brushed or grazed by a potential host, as well as sneak over to a sleeping or resting host. Ticks could wait for weeks without a meal, making them one of the most patient and tricky biting bugs.


Flea and tick bites can cause redness and irritation, but it doesn’t stop there. While many of their bites are harmless, both fleas and ticks can carry bacteria and diseases that are dangerous.


Flea bites will appear much smaller and may include redness and swelling. Because fleas are usually found in groups, the bites are more likely to appear in clusters or near other other bite sites.

Flea bites from fleas are wildly irritating to host (hello, itchiness!), but they can also cause anemia, rashes, and flu-like symptoms from transmitting bacterial illnesses like Bartonellosis. Fleas can even carry and transfer tapeworms to their hosts.


Tick bites are generally larger in size and frequently have a “bullseye” appearance. Ticks feed for long periods by burying their heads under the skin. Their bites can develop a noticeable scab in the middle of the inflammation, though sometimes it isn’t a scab at all, but the tick itself still buried and actively feeding beneath the skin. Tick bites require swifter attention due to the associated risks of dangerous illnesses like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, both of which can be transmitted to the host in a matter of hours.

If you find a tick biting you, it’s important to remove it right away. Begin by putting on some gloves and using a clean, fine-tipped pair of tweezers to grab the exposed end of the tick as close to the bite as possible. The tick will eventually unlatch if you apply firm pressure, without yanking or twisting, to pull it straight outward. Discard the tick by flushing it down the toilet, and never crush the tick between your fingers. Double-check to make sure you extracted the whole tick, as the mouthparts sometimes sever during the removal process and anything left beneath the skin can cause an infection. Keep a careful eye on the bite, and see your doctor if you develop a rash or fever within several weeks of the tick bite.


Luckily, flea and tick bites are prevented using an array of dual-use products, so both offenders can be warded off with one solution. The quickest way to prevent fleas and ticks from bothering you and your family is to make their favorite hosts—your pets—less enticing. Shampoo, medications, and topical methods for prevention are easy to acquire and easy to apply. A visit to your veterinarian can help with specific recommendations for your pets.

Since ticks are known hitchhikers who dwell outdoors, steer clear of tick-friendly areas and wear protective clothing such as long sleeves and long pants when venturing outdoors. Bug repellent with DEET deters biting bugs of all kinds, ticks and fleas included.

To get ahead of any potential flea or tick bites, comb through the hair and fur of all of your family members, furry friends included, and do a thorough check for ticks all over after any time spent outside enjoying nature. If you notice any bug bites, monitor any symptoms closely and play it safe by heading to the doctor if you or a loved one develops a fever, rash, fatigue, or other unusual symptoms.

Still not sure if you’re having a flea or tick problem at your home or in your yard? We’re happy to help. A pest control professional can do a thorough inspection and provide helpful instruction. Call us today to get started with our pet- and family-friendly flea and tick treatments so you enjoy your yard free from the worry of invading pests.