Parasites: tiny travellers that can infest your pet
Summer is parasite season for pets. In recent years, the landscape of common parasites to affect pets has changed.
Parasites are significant for two reasons: first, they can affect the health and comfort of your pet, and second, they can have an impact on the health and comfort of humans in your household.
The "rising star" in the pet parasite world is lungworm. Fortunately, this can only affect dogs: there is no risk to human health at all. But the impact on dogs can be very serious indeed. Lungworm has become more common in recent years due to changing weather patterns: warmer, moister weather means that we are seeing far more lungworm cases over a much wider geographical area.
Dogs pick up lungworm by eating slugs and snails: some animals are seen by their owners to do this, while other dogs pick up lungworm despite their owner never seeing a slug or snail being eaten. It's thought that such dogs may eat tiny slugs while chewing grass, a habit enjoyed by many pets.
The lungworm has two negative effects on the dog: first, it settles in the lungs, irritating the airways and causing the dog to cough. Second, the parasite produces chemicals that stop the blood from clotting. This can lead to unexpected random haemorrhages. In the worst cases, I have seen healthy young dogs dying from spontaneous brain haemorrhages: it's only at the autopsy that the presence of lungworm is noticed.
I saw two cases of lungworm last week. One dog - a Collie - had developed a nasty, hacking cough that failed to respond to simple treatment. X-rays showed changes in the lungs which are typical of lungworm. The other dog was more vague: a terrier became dull, stopped wanting to exercise, and passed small amounts of blood in his faeces. Examination of faeces samples revealed the presence of microscopic lungworm larvae. The good news is that treatment for lungworm was simple, using modern medication that eradicates the parasite. After thorough treatment, dogs are now making a steady recovery.
With the increasing incidence of lungworm, there's a strong argument for routine dosing against lungworm for any dog that spends time in slug/snail territory, such as gardens and parks, to avoid the risk of unexpected and serious disease.
Ticks are the second summer parasite that's increasing in incidence. While ticks are less likely to carry a life threatening disease for pets, they have the potential to spread a serious illness (Lyme Disease) to humans. I saw a Pomeranian dog last week who had a large tick in his armpit: his owner had tried to remove it, and the head had broken off, so an abscess had developed in the skin. This responded well to treatment with antibiotics, but it would have been better if it had been prevented.
There are two effective ways of dealing with ticks. If your pet just has occasional ticks attaching, then an O'Tom tick removing tool is the best answer, allowing you to simply and effectively take off any visiting ticks. If you don't like the idea of doing this, or if your pet is prone to gathering high numbers of ticks, there are several new long-lasting tablets now available from your vet that cause ticks to die if they attach to your pet. This type of medication has significantly improved the quality of life of dogs that live in tick-rich countryside.
When handling ticks, you need to remember that there's a risk of picking up Lyme Disease yourself, so it's safest to wear protective gloves, and to dispose of the ticks properly (put them in a fire, or double seal them in plastic bags, squash them, and put them in the bin.)
While lungworm and ticks have become more widespread in recent years, the two "traditional" pet parasites are still seen regularly.
Fleas are seen more in the summer months because it's warm enough in Ireland for flea eggs to incubate outside. This means that fleas breed in common areas where pets congregate (such as dog parks or gardens frequented by cats). Visiting pets are likely to pick up fleas and take them home.
There are two bits of good news about fleas: first, they can't be passed on to humans, and second, they are easy to control with spot-on products and tablets. The new tick control tablets also happen to kill fleas, so effective parasite control is easier than ever.
The Pomeranian dog with ticks that I saw last week also had a few fleas, and it was reassuring for the owner that the anti-tick tablet was the only treatment that was needed to cover both types of parasites.
The final common parasite seen in Ireland is the dog roundworm, Toxocara. Rarely, this can cause illness in humans, including blindness in children, so it's essential that every pet owner puts an effective anti-worm regime in place. This can be as simple as a tablet once every three months, but it's important that the right type of tablet is used. Regular poop scooping - even in your own garden - is an important part of ensuring that humans are not exposed to roundworm.
Parasite control is an important part of responsible pet ownership, and the best approach is different for every animal. Talk to your vet about this:: give the right anti-parasite products at the right time, and there's nothing to worry about.