Fleas, and Ticks, and Heartworm! Oh My!

As I sit here in rainy New England, not only am I dreading going out in the rain with my pups (they still need exercise!), I'm also dreading the flea, tick and heartworm season.

How Does My Pet Get Fleas, Ticks or Heartworm?
Fleas and ticks are external parasites that feed off of your dog, cat, (or your!) blood. The flea uses the host to feed, breed, and lay eggs on the host, continuing the life cycle of the pest. Ticks just latch, feed, and fall off, but not before potentially transmitting a list of diseases (such as Lyme or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever).

These are real-life ticks, and actual size. (This post is giving me the heebee-geebies)

Heartworm is a bit different. Heartworm is contracted through mosquito bites. The heartworm larvae is transmitted into the bloodstream, and eventually find their way into the hosts heart. Once there, the larvae breed and do their internal parasitic thing, causing symptoms that mimic some heart conditions - coughing, difficulty breathing, etc.   It's important to test your dog for the presence of heartworm BEFORE starting a heartworm prevention medication. If you give a dog with heartworm a preventative medication, the heartworm is released into the host system, and can kill the pet. For cats, there is no treatment for heartworm.

To test for heartworm, your vet will do a simple blood test, and help you find the right preventative for your particular pet.

When to Start Preventative Treatment

Most people think they only need their monthly meds for their dogs once it's tank top and flip flop weather. Though it's true you want your dog protected in the summer months, you don't to neglect the spring and fall months either. As the weather warms up and the world starts to thaw, those ticks and fleas that survived the winter are now looking for any warm body to leap on to. That warm body could be your dog, cat, or you.

My advice is to keep your dog on year round flea and tick prevention. It's expensive, but in our neck of the woods, we don't get a hard frost until much later in the year (December/January) and we have some fluke warm days. In March of this year, we had a day near 70 degrees before it got cold again. I talked to some people that went hiking with their dogs that one warm day, and the dogs all had a couple of ticks. As soon as it's warm enough for you to want to be out there, it's warm enough for these guys to go in search of food. Those fleas and ticks are looking for a nice new home, and any warm body will suffice.

What are the Effects of Fleas and Ticks on My Pet?

* Lyme disease: The big disease in our region is Lyme Disease.  I wrote a post on it last year after Sadie contracted Lyme. In short, dogs that contract Lyme tend to show:
  • Stiff walk with an arched back
  • Sensitive to touch
  • Hind end lameness
  • Fever
  • Lack of appetite
  • Depression may accompany inflammation of the joints
  • Superficial lymph nodes close to the site of the infecting tick bite may be swollen

In people, it's easy to see the tell-tale "bulls-eye" that surrounds the bite site.

Lyme Disease in a human

* Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever: This disease is transmitted through the Dog Tick and the Rocky Mountain Wood Tick (hence, the particularly catchy name). Symptoms include:
  • Depression
  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • Blood in the urine
  • Irregular heart beat (arrhythmia)
  • Discolored spots along the skin, often bruised or purplish in color
  • Inability to walk normally, loss of coordination (ataxia)
  • Swelling or edema (fluid retention) in the limbs
  • Bleeding that occurs suddenly, most often from the nose, or in the stools
  • Difficulty with blood clotting, which can lead to shock or death
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Inflammation, hemorrhage, or conjunctivitis in the mucosal membranes, most commonly in the eyes

* Skin Infections: A flea bite means an open wound - plus, the dog is scratching to relieve the itchiness. Bacteria are just the right size to get in those little, teeny, tiny wounds left by the flea, and also in the scratches left by the dog.

* Allergies: When you live somewhere, eventually you have to poop. Fleas live on your pet, and after a long day of sucking down life sustaining blood (and making your dog miserable), they have to eliminate. Many dogs are allergic to the flea excrement.

What Options Are Available for Prevention?
  • Flea and Tick Collars: Traditionally, dogs would wear flea collars to prevent external parasites. This is not the preferred method today, especially if your dog goes to a dog park, daycare, or other environment where they are playing with other dogs (or small children) who might bite, lick, or ingest some of the insecticide.This is a potential solution for dogs with skin sensitivity, or people who forget to dose their dogs every month. These are not waterproof, are not for old/sick dogs, and some of the chemicals can be deadly for cats. Do your research.
  • Topical Solutions (Advantix, Advantage, Frontline, Frontline Plus, Revolution, etc): There are many brands of topical solutions to put on your dog once a month. Some just protect against fleas, some against fleas and ticks, some kill larvae, some don't. Most of the topical solutions will not prevent a tick from latching on - but will kill the tick before it can transfer lyme & other diseases to your pet. Your dog also can not get bathed/swim 2 days before or after the solution is put on to make sure it's totally absorbed into the bloodstream. 
  • Vaccines: There is a lyme vaccine available, however it's a bit controversial. Some schools suggest the vaccine causes more harm than good and doesn't have a high enough success rate to warrant the vaccine. Others swear by it and suggest that they use it in conjunction with other preventative flea and tick preventative measures. My feeling on it is if you and your vet have a conversation about the vaccine, you're on the right path. My vet suggested to get the vaccine because we do a lot of hiking in the woods (where these pests live), and our lifestyle is active. The vaccine alone isn't enough to protect your dog, but it's a start. You may live in a wooded area but have a dog that only goes on leash walks through the neighborhood. Talk with your vet to see if the vaccine is right for you. 
  • Oral Medication/Fleas & Ticks (Capstar, Comfortis, Program, Sentinel, etc) : Some people who have young children do not wish to have a topical solution or flea collar on their pet because they are worried that the child may come in contact with the insecticide. Additionally, some dogs are really sensitive to topical solutions. Fortunately, there are multiple products available for dogs that taste like beef and keep the parasites away. Some only kill eggs/larvae, while the adult fleas remain, so make sure you get the right type of oral medication for your situation, and you also get a good flea bath product to kill the adult fleas.
  • Oral Medication/Heartworm (Interceptor, Heartgard, etc): Talk with your vet about which product is best for your dog, and what schedule is best for your pet. Most dogs should be on heart worm prevention year round. If you skip a dose, make sure to have your dog heartworm tested before administering the next months pill. Also, some breeds of dog do better on Interceptor than they do Heartguard because of the way certain breeds process the medication. Check with your vet to make sure that you have the correct medication for your dog. 
Heartworm is totally preventable, and it's a devestating to see what happens to an animal with untreated heartworm:


If you have a pet, you are responsible for it's care and welfare. Make sure you keep your pet on the appropriate flea prevention, tick prevention in areas that call for it, and the monthly heartworm prevention for your particular needs.

I'm going to go take a shower. I feel like things are crawling all over me after writing this one! And for some gratuitious "cute" after all of this, let me direct you to the cutest thing I could, relating to showers:

Phew. Much better.

Thanks to PetMD.com for the symptoms of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme. Thanks also to Pest Cemetary for the flea/dog GIF.

If you have an idea for an article you would like me to do the research for, leave a comment or email me at muttstuff at gmail dot com!

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