Yes, they are icky. They can cause us to feel squeamish, to make funny faces, and to push aside our lunches, but we must talk about them. Parasites, which are bugs and worms that live on or inside of our pets, can cause serious health issues for our best friends. As the weather improves and more people (and pets) are headed outside, the risk for infestation increases greatly. We must educate ourselves about these organisms for the sake of our pets.
Parasitic worms are a common ailment of cats and dogs. (Fun fact: Parasites that live inside the body are called “endoparasites” while those that live outside the body are “ectoparasites.”) Though several different kinds exist, the most often seen in this area are tapeworms and roundworms. Tapeworms are long, flat, segmented creatures that live in an animal’s intestinal tract. Different species of tapeworms are transmitted by different intermediate hosts, such as fleas or mice. Dogs and cats become infested when they ingest the infected tissues of these animals. Unless the infestation is severe or the animal’s health is otherwise compromised, often the only sign of tapeworms are what look like little grains of rice clinging to the animal’s backside or bedding.
Roundworms are the most common intestinal parasite. Though the mature roundworms live only in the intestinal tract, the larvae can live nearly anywhere in the body. They can be passed from mother to puppy or kitten before birth or in the milk. Infestations can also occur from eating infected prey animals or ingesting eggs from soiled areas. Roundworms can infect humans as well as cats and dogs, so be sure that your child’s sandbox is clean. Animals do not always show symptoms of being infested with roundworms, but can display vomiting or diarrhea. Contrary to popular belief, scooting on the carpet does not always indicate an infestation. Affected animals may never scoot and those that do may have anal gland issues or other irritation of the area.
Coccidia (pronounced kok-sid-ee-uh) is a single celled organism that can live in the intestine of animals. Young animals are the most commonly infected and can suffer greatly from an infestation due to the loss of electrolytes and nutrients. The most common sign of a coccida infestation is diarrhea. Animals can become infested after ingesting contaminated soil or feces.
Parasties that live outside bodies are easier for owners to spot. Ear mites cause a buildup of dark brown wax that looks sort of like coffee grounds. Animals plagued by ear mites may scratch at their ears frequently or have red, inflamed ears. Both cats and dogs can get ear mites, which are usually transmitted through social contact.
Fleas are tiny insects that feed off of an animal’s blood. They can sometimes be spotted in a pet’s favorite lounging area or even running across their fur. Another sign of flea problems is “flea dirt,” which appears as little dark flecks on the animal’s skin. These bits actually contain dried blood from the feeding of the fleas. How can you tell the difference between flea dirt and plain old dirt? Take some of the specks, place them on a clean surface, and pour a bit of hydrogen peroxide on them. If it foams, you have flea dirt. Though fleas themselves rarely cause disease (flea allergies, however, can be severe), they are a common source of other problems, such as tapeworms.
Ticks can be picked up from nearly any area outside. They feast on their host by burying their mouthparts in the animal’s skin. Like fleas, they do not usually cause problems in themselves, but can carry serious conditions, like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Ticks can attach to people just as easily as cats and dogs. Though exposure to ticks is difficult to prevent, especially if you and your dog are hikers, many products are available to help prevent ticks from attaching to your pet.
Many different treatment and preventative products are available. Be sure to carefully read all labels before using these products. Many that are safe for dogs are toxic to cats. Topical treatments can be harmful to family members who may pet the animal then accidentally ingest some of the substance. It is prudent to consult with your veterinarian before using any product or supplement with your pet. Discuss parasite testing and prevention with them and ask what they recommend for your pet. More information about parasites can be found on the Companion Animal Parasite Counsel’s website.
Now that you know about what could bug your pet this summer, go forth with your sunblock, plenty of water, and have a fantastic season!