Prevention better than cure with fleas and ticks
As the summer months approach, it isn't just humans and pets who are getting ready to enjoy the sunshine. So-called "ectoparasites" - specifically fleas and ticks - breed more quickly and are more active when it gets warmer. While these parasites are seen all year round now, with centrally heated homes, they're more common in the summer months.
A recent study of over 500 Irish dog owners by MSD, the international animal health company, has come up with some interesting facts and figures about the impact of these parasites on people and pets.
First, the results show how close Irish people have become to their dogs: pets are now regarded by most people as fully fledged family members. 63% of owners allow their dog to lie on sofa and 37% let their dog sleep on the human bed. Meanwhile 80% say hello to their dog when they come home, and 33% go as far as dancing with their dogs. 40% of dog owners let their dog lick their face, while 44% said they wouldn't routinely wash their hands after petting their dog. This close proximity between humans and animals is a new trend in a country where dogs were traditionally kept more as outdoor-type, in-the-farmyard creatures, not as pets indoors. This new closeness means that there's an increased risk of creepy crawly parasites shifting from dogs to people.
Fortunately, humans don't develop fully fledged flea infestations. Dog and cat fleas nibble human flesh, then decide that they don't like the taste of our blood. If a flea hops on to you, you're likely to get a transient rash, like nettle stings. Some people are allergic to fleas, so they can suffer a more dramatic version, with a seriously itch and bothersome spots. It's obviously better to take steps to ensure that this never happens.
Fleas can be a hidden problem: over 95% of a flea infestation is in the home itself, with the fleas living in the carpets and soft furnishings. Only 5% of a flea population is normally visible on the affected pet. It's for this reason that when I see an itchy animal, I often suggest treating the pet - and the home - for fleas, even if I can't see any creepy crawlies on the dog or cat. And this is one of the reasons why many people choose to use routine flea control measures, especially in the warmer months of the year.
Ticks are equally problematic. They are not choosy about which species they suck blood from, and the big issue is that ticks can transmit Lyme Disease, which causes serious illness in both dogs and humans.
The life cycle of a tick is simple: they hide in vegetation, such as meadows or woodlands, waiting for passing mammals. Then they attach themselves to whichever piece of anatomy they can grab onto, crawling up the body and burying their mouthparts deep in the skin, like a little drill searching for a blood vessel. They then suck blood, swelling up as they swallow a blood meal. Once they are full, the females fall off into the undergrowth (or the carpet, if they are in a house). They lay their eggs, young ticks hatch out, and so the cycle repeats itself.
The problem is that as well as causing an irritation when they attach themselves, they pick up Lyme Disease when they suck blood from an infected animal, and they pass this on to their next victim. Again, you can see the logic in preventing these parasites from harassing people and pets.
If a pet just gets a tick once or twice a year, a relaxed approach is sometimes taken, simply removing them carefully when they appear (ideally using a proper tick removal tool, such as the "O'Tom Tick Remover"). If ticks are seen more often than this, it's definitely worthwhile using regular tick control treatments to prevent the problem.
There are some locations where ticks are far more common than others: I know many pet owners who take summer trips to different parts of the country where they know to expect ticks on their pets and on themselves. Before they head off each year, they come to collect effective tick control medication from my clinic, to ensure that they - and their pets - can enjoy a tick-free break.
In the recent survey, while dog-owners had a good awareness of the value of protecting their animals against fleas and ticks, almost two thirds admitted to sometimes or often forgetting to give treatment. Over half of respondents (58%) said that they didn't receive a regular reminder from their vet about flea treatment, but over 50% also said that they would be more likely to remember to carry out effective prevention if prompted by a reminder service. This is something that more and more vets are considering, especially in this age of easy and inexpensive communication, such as SMS texts and emails.
One way of making it easier for owners to prevent these parasites is to use the more recently developed methods of parasite control: more than two thirds of dog owners surveyed said they would prefer to give a long-lasting (12 week) flea and tick treatment with a separate worming tablet rather than having to remember to give a flea and tick treatment every month.
Flea and tick control measures have improved significantly in recent years. If you're not sure what to do, talk to your vet: the most effective and safest anti-parasite products tend to be launched first via the nation's network of vet clinics.