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Derm Month: Ectoparasites

Derm Month: Ectoparasites

Just what are ectoparasites? 

As alien as the word sounds, ectoparasites are a classification of parasites that infest the external body, ie., the skin. Fun fact: "ecto" means "outer" or "external"!

Common ectoparasites of our pets include fleas, ticks, lice and mites.


Flea infestations in our pets typically get noticed by more frequent than usual scratching and itching by our pets. Hair loss can also be an accompanying sign, along with some tiny specks of "flea dirt" in fur/bedding when inspected (these can resemble pepper grinds).  

Excessive chewing, scratching or licking in areas such as the base of the tail, shoulders, neck and flanks can also be an indicator of fleas as they love hanging out in these areas. It is important to look out for signs of redness on the skin, which may indicate an inflammatory reaction to the excessive grooming response, or the possibility of flea bite hypersensitivity. If you notice any signs signalling this, please make an appointment with your preferred veterinarian to get your pet's skin examined. It is always best to be safe than sorry!

Sometimes, adult fleas can also be visible to the naked eye, and in heavier infestations, you may see them jumping around, and even on to you! 


These are probably the ones that are most commonly noticed and picked up on by pet owners, due to ticks being quite visible to the naked eye, particularly the females, which are large, grey and raisin-like.

Fig 1. Female tick.

Ticks are parasites that feed off the blood of their host by puncturing a small hole in the skin with their mouthparts. With tick infestations, one can typically see the bumps where the ticks are under the fur of smooth coated dogs. With long coated dogs, it can be less visible, but a quick feel of the body will allow one to feel the bumps of ticks along the skin's surface.

Ticks can harbour blood borne diseases such as Babesia, Erlichia and Borrelia (Lyme) diseases, and can lead to issues such as fever, lameness and anemia, to name a few. These diseases are also transmissible to humans via tick bites, so get rid of these things if you see them! 

When you encounter ticks on your pet or in their environment, it can be tempting to squash them and kill them. However, the female tick harbours thousands of eggs within her body and squashing her only serves to release her eggs into the environment! It is best to dispose of ticks by placing them in a tightly sealed container and then disposing it into the trash. 

When removing ticks, ensure that they are removed gently with appropriate tools such as tweezers or a tick removing tool to prevent the tick's mouthparts from being dislodged from its body during removal. Please also wear gloves and wash your hands if taking on the task of removal to prevent any possible risk of disease transmission. 

Lice & Mites

Lice and mites are very small ectoparasites that bite and burrow into skin. This can cause intense irritation, itching and restlessness in our pets. Hair loss may occur as well due to the burrowing and subsequent inflammatory damage to skin and hair follicles.

Ear mites cause significant ear discomfort and you may notice your pet shaking its head more often. Excessive head shaking can predispose floppy-eared dogs to developing aural haematomas! This is when the blood vessels are damaged from excess impact and cause ballooning of the ear flaps from blood accumulation. Treatment and surgery for aural haematomas can be costly and distressing for both the pet and owner so please keep an eye out and observe your pet's headshaking frequency!

Fig 2. Excessive ear scratching and headshaking can be signs of ear mite infestation

These ectoparasites are unable to be detected by the naked eye and require skin scraping and examination of the scrape under magnification to identify the culprits. Such procedures are quick and easily done with your preferred veterinarian. 


Prevention of ectoparasites is relatively easy. There are numerous products available in the market as monthly spot-ons, sprays, dips and washes

One thing to note is to observe your pet's habits. Younger animals can be itchier than adults, but take note of their general behaviour and if you observe any of the abovementioned symptoms in excess, it is time to bring your pet for a quick check with your veterinarian. 

If bringing your dog out to dog runs and public parks, always check your pet for any potential ectoparasites after the activity, and if possible, wipe them down or give them a good thorough wash with a suitable shampoo. Check paw pads and the web between them as this is a common point of entry for ticks.

What do you think? Do you have any ectoparasite stories to share? Tell us!



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