Prevent the Big Three Pet Parasites

[ticks, fleas, heartworms are major pet parasites]

Ticks, fleas, and mosquitoes. Nobody wants these bugs on their pets or in their house. But the reasons for keeping these bugs away go beyond just avoiding pests.

“Ticks, fleas, and mosquitoes are dangerous because they can carry and cause malicious diseases,” explains Dr. Gary Brummet, who heads the small animal primary care service at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana and counsels pet owners on preventing pet parasites.

Ticks Spread Diseases

“Ticks are infamous for their disease-carrying capabilities. They transmit Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever and can also pass along protozoa like Cytauxzoonosis and many others,” says Dr. Brummet.

[engorged tick on a dog]
An engorged tick on a dog. Photo from Borislav Dopudja.
Dogs are extremely susceptible to Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which typically causes fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. When left untreated, Rocky Mountain spotted fever can lead to death.

Cytauxzoonosis is a deadly disease caused by protozoa that affect domestic cats. It begins with nonspecific signs, including lethargy and a poor appetite; the disease will progresses to an extremely high fever and death if not treated quickly.

Lyme disease is a bacterial disease that can affect dogs, horses, people, and potentially cats. It can cause neurological issues, joint disease, and overall lameness. In its most severe forms, it causes renal failure and ultimately death.

In the past this disease was more prevalent in the northeast, but due to increasing deer populations (an ideal tick host) and reforestation providing prime tick habitat, Lyme spreading ticks have increased in number and are becoming more and more prevalent here in the Midwest as well as other parts of the country they were not in even just 20 years ago.

This year preventing tick bites is going to be even more relevant as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has predicted high tick populations, likely due to the mild winter.

Fleas Trigger Allergies

[dead flea]
A dead flea. Photo from Jonathan Haynes.
“Fleas may be less known among pet parasites for causing deadly diseases, but are detrimental nonetheless,” says Dr. Brummet. It is not uncommon for dogs with skin allergies to be reacting to a flea infestation, even if they have very few fleas. Fleas also carry tapeworms, which work their way into your pet’s digestive system when the fleas are swallowed while the animal grooms itself.

Additionally, fleas can easily infest a house, which can be very unpleasant. Dr. Brummet says, “Once fleas get in the house, they can be hard to get rid of, so it is easiest to stop them before they start. This means protecting your pets with preventive medication.”

Heartworms Are Deadly

Heartworms are the last of the big three pet parasites most commonly discussed, and they are exactly what their name implies: worms that live in your pet’s heart.

[heartworms exposed in dog's heart]
A dog’s heart infected with heartworms. Photo by Alan R. Walker.
“Heartworms are transmitted by mosquitoes. Any time pets are outside, they are at risk. Heartworms can grow to eight inches in length and can spread from the heart to the lungs,” explains Dr. Brummet.

The signs of a heartworm infestation often start subtly; the animal will begin to tire easily when exercising and may cough. If left untreated, the worms will create such a burden on the heart that the heart cannot perform its job and the animal will die. In cats, heartworms can cause sudden death because there were no discernable signs of disease.

“Heartworm can be treated, but the treatment is costly and the animal will likely need to be hospitalized. The course of intramuscular injections used to treat heartworm takes months to complete, and even if the animal survives, it may have lifelong restricted activity because of the damage done to the heart,” Dr. Brummet says.

Prevent Pet Parasites

“Preventive medications are really the best way to combat these parasites and the diseases that accompany them. It is less expensive in the long run and much safer for your pet,” recommends Dr. Brummet.

He notes an added bonus to giving your pet a heartworm preventive: “Heartworm preventives also protect your pet from intestinal parasites that can cause gastrointestinal disease.”

Preventive medications for fleas, ticks, and heartworm should ideally be given year round.

“Many owners stop giving medications towards the end of the summer as the weather cools down, but September and October are probably the worst months for flea and tick infestations. At the very least, flea and tick preventive should be given until the second hard frost. Heartworm preventive should be given all year,” cautions Dr. Brummet.

Preventive medications are available in oral and topical forms. Dr. Brummet advises speaking with your veterinarian to choose what is best for your pet.

“Many of these medications are species-specific. Using dog products on cats can cause harmful reactions. You should only give the medication to the pet it was prescribed for,” says Dr. Brummet.

If you have questions about fleas, ticks, heartworms, or other pet parasites, talk to your veterinarian.

By Hannah Beers

Feature photo from Pixabay.