by Petfolk Care Team
Medically reviewed by Dr. Audrey Wystrach
When you hear the word parasite, often odd, alien-like creatures come to mind. In reality, the parasites we are most concerned about do look alien, just on a much smaller scale. They can, however, create big problems for you and your pet. Thankfully, we now have safe, effective products to protect us all from parasites and many of the diseases they carry.
Dogs and cats can both be infected with fleas and ticks, and it isn’t just outside pets. Fleas are insects that feed on blood and can transmit diseases such as cat scratch fever, the plague, tapeworms, and other diseases that affect both pets and people. They can also cause severe itching and allergies in pets, leading to hair loss and skin infections.
Ticks are arachnids, with 8 legs like spiders, and can affect dogs, cats, and people. Different species of ticks are known to carry and transmit serious diseases such as Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and Ehrlichia.
Heartworms are internal, so can be more difficult to identify, but are a cause of heart failure and death in dogs and cats in many regions of the US, including the Southeast. Heartworms are spread by mosquitoes - insects that are good at getting into houses despite our best efforts. If a mosquito bites your pet, they can transmit larval, or baby, heartworms that travel through the tissues and set up camp in the heart and lungs. If left undetected or untreated, these long, thin worms cause damage to the heart, vessels, and lungs. In dogs, they can be treated and removed, but this is an expensive and lengthy process. Sadly, it is difficult to detect heartworms in cats, and there is no approved medication to treat heartworms in our feline friends.
Do you need prevention all year? Yes! All of these parasites can be active all year. Even if it is winter, it only takes a few days above freezing to bring out some parasites and expose your pet to risk.
What if my pet rarely goes outside? Indoor cats and apartment dogs are still at risk. Sitting in an open window and even short walks provide exposure to fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes. And some of these parasites can hitchhike on other pets or people.
What should you do if you find a tick or flea on your pet? If you can physically remove the pest safely, do so. If a tick is attached, you can place it in a plastic baggie in case testing is recommended by your veterinarian. If you see fleas, call your veterinarian before bathing or applying any products. Some over the counter products can be toxic to pets.
How do you find heartworms? All it takes for the heartworm screening test is a few drops of blood, which most pets tolerate well with some yummy treats as a distraction. Your vet will run this test annually, or if you miss a dose of prevention, 6 months after a missed dose. There is not a reliable test for screening cats, but if your cat is having changes to breathing or certain other symptoms, more advanced testing may be recommended.
The good news is that there are great options for protecting your pet and family! There are oral and topical options for preventing fleas, ticks, and heartworms, and even a once a year injection to protect against heartworms (Proheart). All prescription strength products have been tested and approved by the FDA, meaning that they are safe for most pets. Your veterinarian can work with you to determine the best option, and it is important to share any underlying conditions such as seizures or allergic reactions.
Protecting your pet against parasites is an easy way to help keep them happy and healthy. You can find more information on common parasites, risks to your family, prevention and treatments by discussing them with your veterinarian at your annual wellness visits. There is also a website dedicated to pet parasite monitoring and education - the Companion Animal Parasite Council at capcvet.org.