Just thinking about a beloved pet plagued by nasty parasites can cause the majority of pet owners to shudder. Sadly, our furry companions actually offer these unwanted “visitors” a welcome and warm environment and a convenient place in which to breed. And with the approaching warm-weather more time is spent outdoors with their pets.
However, warm weather is the time when most blood-sucking parasites start coming out in droves to seek furry, unsuspecting hosts upon which they can feed from. To prevent infection, pet parents need to keep these tiny meal-seeking critters at bay by proactively treating them with the best parasite control products to help ensure the good health and comfort of their fur-friends.
So exactly what are some of these highly dangerous parasites?
Heartworm Disease and which species are susceptible to this infection?
Heartworm Disease is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition. It is caused by a blood-borne parasite called Dirofilaria immitis which resides in the arteries of the heart, lungs and the adjacent blood vessels of infected cats, dogs and other mammalian species. The female heartworm can measure between 6 to 14 inches long and 1/8 inch wide. The male heartworm measures about one half the length of the female.
Any breed and gender of cats and dogs are highly susceptible to heartworm infection. While heartworm disease has been reported throughout the United States, it is more commonly found along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, from the Gulf of Mexico to New Jersey and along the Mississippi River.
Although heartworm disease is far more common in dogs, recent studies of cats that have heart disease and upper respiratory conditions are demonstrating a greater occurrence of heartworms in kitties. This now indicates that heartworm disease in cats is more common than had been previously considered. According to a recent study that approximately 1/3 of the cats infected with heartworm disease were indoor only kitties. The American Heartworm Society (AHS) strongly recommends that cat owners have their kitties heartworm-tested every 12 months and to give their cats year-round prevention.
Although cats are less likely than dogs to harbor adult heartworms, screening for heartworm in cats should include both an antigen and antibody test. The antibody test can detect exposure to heartworm larvae. X-rays and ultrasound may also be used to detect heartworm infection. Unfortunately, since there is no approved safe treatment for heartworm in cats at this time, prevention is crucial. Cats and dogs should be tested prior to using heartworm prevention products.
How does Heartworm Disease spread?
The heartworm cycle needs two host animals to complete the cycle. Two Heartworms need the mosquito as an intermediate host. The mosquitos ingest the immature heartworm larvae by feeding on either an infected cat or, more frequently, an infected dog. The immature larvae grow in the mosquito’s gut for 10 to 30 days and then enter its mouthparts.
When an infected mosquito bites a cat or dog, the infected larvae are injected into an animal. The infected larvae mature and migrate for many months, eventually ending up in the right side of the animal’s heart and pulmonary arteries. There they mature into adult heartworms that are ready to reproduce within about six months. At about eight months after infection they begin producing a new crop of larvae that will live in the animal’s blood for approximately one month.
In order for a pet to be infected with heartworm disease, due to this life-cycle, the animal must be bitten by an infected mosquito. This is because heartworms are not directly transmitted from one cat to another, from one dog to another, or from a cat directly to a dog.
Symptoms of Heartworm Infection:
According to the AHS, symptoms of Heartworm infection in cats and dogs range from subtle to dramatic signs. Symptoms can range from asthma-like attacks, coughing and lack of appetite, vomiting or weight loss. Some cats and dogs can have seizures, fainting spells, have difficulty walking or an accumulation of abdominal fluid. Unfortunately the first sign on infection in some cases can be sudden collapse or even sudden death.
For more in-depth information about Heartworm Disease, visit the AHS Website.
Fleas, Ticks and Internal parasites:
Once you know what to look for, external parasites such as fleas and ticks are easy to detect. Although fleas, (those pesky arthropods) are annoying, they may not be apparent for owners who initially are experiencing this infestation. Fleas seek pets’ blood as their food source. According to Patrick Mahaney, VMD, “Once fleas get on your pet by jumping or crawling, they typically set up their habitat in hard to see or reach places, like the head, neck, tail, armpits, or groin. Licking, biting, or scratching at these places usually indicates the presence of nagging parasites like fleas.”
Flea-dirt, (flea feces composed of digested blood) appears as tiny black or reddish brown specks found on your pet’s body or around the house are another sign of flea infestation. The prudent use of a flea comb is an excellent method to find fleas on a pet. Your veterinarian will provide an appropriate flea prevention product to help get rid of these pesky, dangerous blood suckers.
Keeping the environment flea free at the same time is essential. An excellent product is Fleabusters Rx. This is a safe and easy to apply product, followed by regular vacuuming to get rid of flea eggs and larvae.
Pets that spend time in the great outdoors should be regularly checked for ticks. For more information check out the article on Pet MD Tick-borne Diseases that can affect pets.
Recognizing if your pet is infected with internal parasites, such as roundworms, tapeworms, whipworms and hookworms may be more challenging. Some of the symptoms of internal parasite infections are scooting on their rear end, unexpected weight loss, vomiting and diarrhea.
Having your veterinarian examine your pet’s stool sample under a microscope to check for intestinal parasites and to identify the type of parasite(s) infecting your pet is the smartest way to be able to detect if your pet is harboring internal parasites. All new kittens and puppies should be checked for both internal and external parasites to be sure they are not exposing your other pets or family members. To rid your pet of internal parasites, your veterinarian will provide the most appropriate medication.
By Jo Singer, MSW, CSW, RCSW (Ret.)
To help celebrate Parasite Prevention Month, FloridaWild Veterinary Hospital is offering a single dose of Heartgard free with each completed heartworm test.