Controlling parasites that infect multiple host species often requires targeting single species that dominate transmission. Yet, it is rarely recognised that such ‘key hosts’ can arise through disparate mechanisms, potentially requiring different approaches for control. We identify three distinct, but not mutually exclusive, processes that underlie host species heterogeneity: infection prevalence, population abundance and infectiousness. We construct a theoretical framework to isolate the role of each process from ecological data and to explore the outcome of different control approaches. Applying this framework to data on 11 gastrointestinal parasites in small mammal communities across the eastern United States reveals variation not only in the magnitude of transmission asymmetries among host species but also in the processes driving heterogeneity. These differences influence the efficiency by which different control strategies reduce transmission. Identifying and tailoring interventions to a specific type of key host may therefore enable more effective management of multihost parasites.