The days are longer and we’re shedding our winter coats. After spending a long cold winter inside curled up in front of the heater it’s finally time for us to get outside and have fun! Running in the sand chasing Frisbees at the beach, retrieving balls thrown in the back yard, swimming at the lake, hiking up in the mountains, chasing mice and lizards and a myriad of other activities that are so much fun. Unfortunately, when we go out and enjoy all these fabulous things we run a high risk of being exposed to a number of parasites that can not only be a big nuisance to us and our owners but, left unattended, can also be very detrimental to our health and could even be life threatening.
There are many products on the market to help protect us against these pests. Some are available through our favorite pet stores and others that require a prescription are only available through our veterinarians. To decide which product is best for your particular circumstances your owner should discuss parasite control with your veterinarian as some of these products may require prescreening before use or may have age and weight restrictions.
FLEAS are parasites that live on the skin of a host animal and are the most common ectoparasite of dogs and cats in North America. They cannot survive independently and infest a variety of other hosts including rodents, foxes, coyotes, opossums, raccoons, and birds, just to name a few. Fleas can be acquired by an animal being exposed to newly emerged fleas from an infested environment or they can be transferred directly from one host to another.
In addition to the annoyance and itchy skin that fleas cause, common diseases that infested animals experience include tapeworm infestation, flea allergy dermatitis which is the result of the host’s hypersensitivity to flea saliva and, in the case of heavy infestations, iron deficiency anemia and death, particularly in very young animals.
A comprehensive flea-control program should eliminate fleas on pets, eliminate existing environmental infestations, and prevent subsequent reinfestation of both. There are a variety of flea products on the market that kill adult fleas and come in the form of sprays, topical spot-on products, daily or as-needed pills, or monthly pills. Some formulas prevent flea eggs from hatching and kill larvae also.
Preventative flea control should be started as soon after birth as possible and continue for the life of the pet. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s label recommendations for directions on age and dose to be given.
Some of the public health considerations include bubonic plague transmitted from rodent fleas to dogs and cats and may bite humans, the possibility of children ingesting fleas and developing tapeworm, and skin rashes experienced by people in flea infested areas.
TICK infestation in dogs is reported throughout the United States and has been reported to cause disease in both dogs and cats although little is known about the prevalence of infection in cats or the disease manifestations and treatment recommendations for feline infections.
Infection with tick born diseases, the most common of which is Lyme disease, does not occur until approximately 24 to 48 hours after the initial attachment by a tick and the subsequent feeding on a host as it takes that period of time for the organisms to pass across the salivary glands into the host. Direct transmission from an infected animal to a native animal is considered rare.
Several diseases can be spread by ticks and symptoms may vary depending on the specific disease contracted. Symptoms may include fever, depression, anorexia and weight loss. Occasionally neurologic disease, vomiting or diarrhea may be present or even stiffness, swollen joints or reluctance to move. Diagnosis may include the taking a blood sample and performing several tests.
Ticks are active at various times of the year and preventative tick control is recommended all year long. Attached ticks should be removed promptly to prevent transmission of any pathogens being sure to use caution to prevent zoonotic infection and accidental inoculation of agents into the pet. Avoiding tick infested areas and keeping grass and shrubbery closely clipped to discourage both tick and wildlife populations are recommended.
Prevention of human infection relies on prevention of tick bites in people by using specifically labeled repellent products, wearing appropriate attire, performing frequent tick checks and promptly removing any ticks found.
HEARTWORM disease is a serious and potentially fatal condition caused by parasitic worms living in the arteries of the lungs and occasionally in the right side of the heart of dogs, cats and other species of mammals. Dogs and cats of any age or breed are susceptible to infection and heartworm disease has been reported in all 50 states however it is most prevalent in the southeastern states where mosquitoes are a more significant problem.
Heartworm is spread by mosquitoes when they have bitten an infected animal that an adult female heartworm has released her young into the blood stream. The microfilariae, which the mosquito becomes infected with while taking a blood meal, cannot mature into adult heartworms without first passing through a mosquito. From the time a dog or cat is first bitten by an infected mosquito it takes a little over 6 months for the heartworm larvae to mature into adult worms and in the dog these worms can live for up to 7 years.
Recently infected dogs may exhibit no signs of the disease, while heavily infected dogs may eventually show clinical signs, including a mild, persistent cough, reluctance to move or exercise, fatigue after only moderate exercise, reduced appetite and weight loss. Cats may exhibit clinical signs that are very non-specific, mimicking many other feline diseases. Chronic clinical signs include vomiting, gagging, difficulty or rapid breathing, lethargy and weight loss.
Usually, all but the most advanced cases of heartworm disease can be successfully treated in dogs. Currently, there are no products in the United States approved for the treatment of heartworm infection in cats. Cats have proven to be more resistant hosts to heartworm than dogs, and often appear to be able to rid themselves of infection spontaneously.
Prevention for this disease is available through a number of products including once a month tablets and topical applications. Testing for the disease is highly recommended prior to starting a heartworm prevention program and most if not all products must be obtained through your veterinarian.
So, go out and have fun this spring and summer and be sure to tell your owners how to protect you and them from these pesky parasites.
Written with the assistance of Brian J. Golden, DVM & Michele Woods, Vet Tech