The Importance of Parasite Control in Pets

Parasites are organisms that feed on (ectoparasites) or within (endoparasites) other animals. Fleas and ticks are the most well-known offenders, but they are only part of the picture. Other common parasites include mites, lice, heartworm and a multitude of intestinal and other parasites.

The harm from parasites to a pet’s health can range from minor irritation to serious conditions that, if untreated, can be fatal. Parasites also pose a threat to human health. Some pet parasites cause zoonotic infections, which means they can be transferred from pets to people.

Consider fleas, the most common ectoparasites on dogs and cats. These blood-sucking insects not only cause dermatitis but also carry and transmit disease to other animals and people, such as the tapeworm Dipylidium caninum and the bacterial Bartonella, the cause of Bartonellosis, also known as cat scratch disease. Clearly, fleas are more than just a nuisance.

Need-to-know information about ticks
Ticks are equally sinister to fleas. They cause irritation or infection at the site where they attach to the pet’s skin and are second only to mosquitoes as vectors of human disease. Dogs can have sporadic infestations with just a few ticks or massive infestations causing anemia, weight loss, and even death. For example, the paralysis tick (Ixodes holocylcus) found in Australia and the lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum) found in the USA, produce a toxin that can cause paralysis. In many areas, ticks carry Babesia (a protozoan that causes Babesiosis or Piroplasmosis), Borrelia (a bacterium that causes Lyme disease) and Ehrlichia (rickettsia that cause Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis), and other organisms that can pose serious threats to dog and human health.

Danger from sand flies in wooded areas
Another huge concern is canine Leishmaniasis, an often fatal parasitic disease transmitted by the bite of infected sand flies. Despite the name, sand flies are generally found in rural or wooded areas rather than beaches. Different clinical forms of Leishmaniasis are found in more than 80 countries, although not all forms use the dog as a host. Canine Leishmaniasis is found in southern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, and in some parts of Mexico, Central America, and parts of Asia, such as northwestern China.

Pesky mosquitoes that carry heartworm disease
Mosquito bites can be dangerous for dogs because they can be vectors of a severe, parasitic disease called heartworm or filariasis. Heartworm disease is found in virtually all parts of the USA and many parts of Canada as well as in southern Europe and the tropics. It is the most serious common parasite for dogs because it stresses the dog’s heart by restricting blood flow and can damage other internal organs. Left untreated the disease can be fatal. Fortunately, humans are unnatural hosts for heartworm so cases of human infection are rare.

Preventing parasite infections
With advances in veterinary medicine, most parasitic infections can be prevented. However, pet owners may not be fully aware of the appropriate measures to protect their pets and, in turn, themselves and their families.

The first step is the practice of good personal hygiene, which includes always washing hands after handling pets and before eating food. Grooming animals regularly helps to reduce the risk of coat contamination. To protect people and the environment, cleaning up pet feces regularly is important because most intestinal worms are transmitted by the passage of worm eggs or larvae in feces.

Good hygiene aside, controlling infection through endoparasite or ectoparasite preventative measures and treatment is also important. Because risks vary per geographical region, it is important to seek veterinary advice on the necessary preventative measures.

In general, it is important to put all dogs and cats on a regular deworming program from a young age. Most infections are acquired from the garden, park, pavement or other places dogs or cats frequent. Treatment is advised at least four times a year for adult animals or more often for young and higher risk animals. Getting your pet to take a deworming treatment can be a challenge, but the range of formulations can help. Pastes, granules and palatable tablets are available.

Once may not be enough
Re-infestation with fleas is highly likely in many places around the world, which is why regular prophylaxis with an approved product is generally recommended. While flea infestations peak in summer and autumn, studies show that flea infestation can occur throughout the year, which means year-round flea control is best for pets. Recent research has resulted in innovative products that can meet specific needs of the pet and pet owner. For example, products that include compounds that only become active once inside the flea, which minimizes exposure to highly active insecticides on pets, their owners and in the household., There are also oral products that last long, are more convenient and reduce the potential for gaps in protection.  

Using spot-on and collar products
Insecticidal products in the form of palatable tablets, a spot-on or a collar are available to prevent ticks and sand fly bites on dogs. Spot-on products provide a small volume of liquid containing an acaricide that is applied as a drop to the skin on the back of the dog’s neck, which protects the dog from tick bites for up to 1 month. Collars containing an acaricide can be used to protect for up to 6 months. Prevention from sand fly bites in at-risk areas is particularly important: prevention of Leishmaniais is far easier than treatment, which is not curative.