Spring is right around the corner, which means it’s that time of year again, when the six-legged pests start emerging. While fleas, ticks and mosquitoes are generally annoying, they can have significant health impacts on us and our beloved pets. These parasites carry numerous diseases that can affect our pets, and severe infestations can cause anemia, not to mention skin infections. But don’t despair! These bugs can be easily stopped in their tracks and we can keep our pets safe!
Fleas are a very common problem we see; I would estimate we see, on average, one case of fleas per day during the spring, summer and fall months, and it is not unusual for us to see one case of fleas per week during the frigid winter months. Fleas are tiny little wingless, jumping parasites that are incredibly fast-moving, making it difficult to see the little buggers, especially on pets with dense coats. However, it is easy to check for evidence of fleas, even if you can’t see the fleas themselves. Look for little black flecks (looks like black pepper flakes) on the skin and fur, especially around the base of the tail. Place these flecks on a damp cotton ball or tissue, and rub them with the back of a thumbnail. If the flecks turn the cotton/tissue a rusty red-orange color, this is flea dirt – a.k.a. flea poop (gross, huh?).
Why are fleas a problem?
Not only can fleas make your pets incredibly itchy, but they can severely impact their health. When dogs and cats are constantly scratching the itch, they can cause damage to the skin, resulting in skin infections. Fleas bite our pets and take blood meals (thus the reddish excrement), and with heavy flea infestations, dogs and cats can become significantly anemic.
Fleas also transmit numerous diseases such as the plague (yes, the plague is still around and there have been cases reported in Colorado in the past year), cat scratch fever (yes, it’s actually a disease, not just a song), and tularemia (also known as beaver fever, not to be confused with Bieber-fever). Contrary to popular belief, fleas can survive throughout the winter, even in the Midwest climate. At freezing temperatures, fleas can survive for 5 days, and they can ‘hibernate’ in the pupal stage for up to 30 weeks, or until they find a warm, suitable host to latch on to. Even if Walter the dog “only goes outside to go to the bathroom, and that’s it”, that is enough time to be exposed to fleas. Fleas can enter the yard from stray animals and wildlife crossing through the neighborhood. Even if Marbles the cat never goes outside, we can carry fleas and flea eggs inside to her on our shoes and clothing. Fleas can’t survive on humans, but they certainly can still bite us!
How do I keep my pets safe?
We recommend year-round flea preventives for all pets in the home (indoor-only and outdoor pets) to keep you and Walter and Marbles safe. Even my indoor-only cat is on a year-round flea preventive, just to be safe. It is far easier to prevent fleas, than to deal with an infestation. If you do get a flea infestation, you will need to treat all the pets in the home with an appropriate flea preventive for at least 3 consecutive months to break the life cycle. In some cases, it may be helpful to call an exterminator to help treat the premises, as well.
We see many cases where pet owners are using a flea shampoo for their pet, but are still being plagued with the parasites; unfortunately, flea shampoos are not the most effective form of flea control (plus, it is time consuming to bathe the pets as frequently as a flea infestation requires). There are good products on the market that can be applied topically just once a month; how easy is that?! There are even some tasty chewable tablet options for dogs! Be aware that with some flea products, you get what you pay for; if your flea preventive costs $5 per month, it may not be the most effective treatment option. Ask us about what product is best for your pet; we have a couple of very effective, easy options to choose from!
Ticks are another parasite that plague us and our furry companions. Not only are ticks gross, especially when they take a blood meal and get enormously bloated, but again, they can cause some serious problems for us and our pets.
What kinds of serious problems do ticks cause?
Like fleas, heavy infestations of ticks can cause anemia. Ticks also transmit numerous diseases, some of which can be deadly, especially if not caught quickly enough. There are dozens of species of ticks, and each species is a vector, or carrier, for different diseases; not all ticks carry and transmit the same diseases. The tick-borne disease most people have heard of is Lyme disease. Lyme disease used to be known as a disease that primarily affected the New England states and upper Midwest, but its range has been spreading and we see a few cases every year at our clinic. Other diseases transmitted by ticks include Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, tularemia, and numerous others. Ticks can also cause a disease called tick paralysis; egg-laden female ticks can secrete a neurotoxin in their saliva that paralyzes the host she’s feeding on. If the offending tick is found and completely removed, there is a possibility of reversal of the paralysis. Thanks to climate change, many ticks’ geographic range is expanding, and more ticks are being found in more parts of the country.
How do I keep my pets safe?
The best way to keep your dogs and cats safe from tick-borne illnesses is to have them on a tick-preventive, preferably year-round, because ticks can survive the winter in homes or other shelter structures. Doing regular tick-checks on your pets is also recommended, especially for our thick-coated breeds. Always check your pets after a hike in the woods, or a run through tall grass. Don’t wait until the ticks are bloated to look for them! Some diseases are transmitted within 3 hours of a tick attaching! Ticks often like to climb to the highest point of its host and before latching on, and often try to find a site that doesn’t have as much fur; so don’t forget to check in your pets’ ears, as this is a frequent place we find ticks. When removing ticks, it’s ok to ask us for help! If you are removing them at home, make sure you remove the entire tick, including the head, which can be very firmly attached; it is best to use tweezers or special tick-removing tools. Better yet, let’s prevent ticks altogether! Ask us about what tick preventive product would be best for your pet.
Mosquitoes don’t need much introduction. Most everyone is familiar with that annoying, high-pitched whine, and the irritating, itchy bites. But did you know that mosquitoes also carry and transmit several diseases that can impact our pets’ health, the most noteworthy of which is heartworm disease? Mosquitoes can carry microscopic baby heartworms (called microfilaria) and inject them into our pets when they land to take a meal.
What is heartworm disease?
Heartworm disease affects both dogs and cats, but we tend to see it more frequently in dogs. Heartworms are pretty much what they sound like. The microfilaria flow through the bloodstream, then set up camp, and grow larger in the heart and blood vessels going to the lungs. These worms can grow up to a foot long and cause problems for obvious reasons: they affect heart and lung function and blood flow to these vital organs. This can be a deadly disease, and the treatment can also be life-threatening (not to mention, expensive). The best (and safest!) bet is prevention.
While we don’t see as many cases of heartworm disease here in the upper Midwest as they see in Gulf-coast states, we do still see cases of this nasty disease, so we strongly urge annual testing for heartworm disease (a simple blood test that takes 5 minutes to run in the clinic) and heartworm preventives, which can be as easy as giving one chewable tablet once a month! It is preferable to have your pet on a year-round heartworm preventive, in case of that pesky, rogue mosquito that survives in your home during the winter months. Please talk with us about which heartworm preventive is best for your pet. There are even some mosquito repellents for pets available to stop the mosquitoes from biting in the first place.
If you think that we are immune to some of these parasites because we live in the upper Midwest, where we are a frozen tundra several months a year, I urge you to visit the Companion Animal Parasite Council’s website. They have excellent, up-to-date prevalence maps that show where various diseases and parasites are present in the United States, and even breaks it down to the state and county level. They also are an excellent resource if you want to learn more about a specific parasite.
While many of these parasites and diseases are scary, they are also preventable! We often get asked if the preventives are safe for pets: “If these medications can kill all these parasites, won’t they hurt my pet?” This is a very valid question. Most preventives are very safe when used appropriately and according to the directions. Many of these medications act on the neurologic system of insects, which is different from mammalian neurologic systems; these drugs are more selective for specific ‘targets’ within the insects’ systems. No medication or treatment is a perfect fit for every animal (or person, for that matter), so please talk with us about how to help keep your pet safe, and together, we can come up with the best prevention strategy for your family. We’re here to help!