Dr Mirjam van der Wel, from Vets Incorporated, Port Elizabeth is our September 2021 Vet of the Month. She grew up in Tanzania and studied in the Netherlands before joining Animal Anti-cruelty League in Port Elizabeth, where she worked for 8 years before joining the Vets Incorporated team in 2018.
This month, she gives her insights into a bit of a scratchy problem — fleas, ticks and other insects harming your pets. She’ll give us the lowdown on these nasty critters, and advise on what to do should your household get infected.
Fleas and ticks are the most common parasites found on domestic cats and dogs. Although tiny, their effects on your pets’ health can be significant if left unchecked.
There’s no beating around the bush: fleas live off your pets’ blood. To the tune of 15x their body weight per day, in fact! Considering how tiny fleas are, this might not seem like much – but in severe cases, it could cause your pet to become anaemic (pale gums) and lethargic (less energy).
The first sign of fleas is itchiness. Your pet will be excessively scratching, licking, and biting its skin. This in turn can cause hair loss, scabs and hot-spots. If you examine your pet carefully (even if you don’t see the actual fleas) you may notice flea-dirt (or ‘flea-poop’) which presents as small, dark, ‘grains of sand’, commonly found at the base of tails and at the back of necks. You may also see tiny, white grains which are the flea eggs.
Fleas go way beyond mere annoyance. Some animals suffer from FAD (flea allergy dermatitis), an allergy to flea saliva. In these pets, even a single flea bite can cause itching so severe that the pet scratches its skin until it bleeds in an attempt to find relief.
Fleas are also a known carrier of tapeworm. When your pet grooms itself it will eat the infected flea and this allows the tapeworm to develop inside your pet’s intestine. The worm stays inside the pet’s intestine but it releases proglottids. These are little packages of tapeworm eggs which can look like little white worms by your pet’s anus or in their poop. The dried up proglottids look like little rice grains and are likely to be found on the pet’s sleeping spot. And, although not a common problem, if a human were to ingest an infected flea, they can also get tapeworm.
Out for blood
Then we have ticks. Like fleas, ticks are blood sucking parasites. Unlike fleas, ticks don’t really cause itching. This is because of the local anaesthetic the ticks have in their saliva. Ticks can bite and attach without the host (your cat or dog) noticing. Ticks can attach themselves anywhere on your pet’s body but between the toes and under the tail are popular.
Ticks can transmit a number of diseases, but the ones we’re most concerned with are tick bite fevers. In the case of Babesiosis, the dog is generally acutely unwell, with a fever and pale, sometimes jaundiced (yellow) gums. Emergency treatment (including blood transfusions) may be required to save your pet.
Ehrlichiosis is a more stealthy disease, with the pet still up and about, but noticeably less energetic. The dog may lose weight and become anaemic (pale gums). It can be easily missed as the symptoms are very non-specific.
Cats can also contract acute Babesiosis, but unlike dogs, present tick bite fever symptoms in very atypical ways, which again, can make it easy to miss.
Ticks generally need to have been attached for a while (hours or longer) before they start transmitting diseases. Regular tick checks of your pet can greatly help prevent illness!
A mite-y problem
The last group of common skin irritants for your cats and dogs are mites. Ear mites cause extreme itching of the ears and are easily spread through direct contact between pets.
Demodectic and sarcoptic mites cause mange (brandsiekte), often transmitted to puppies from their moms. The condition can be self-eliminating, but the pup’s skin may need veterinary treatment. If adult dogs contract Demodex, it is usually a sign of underlying problems, such as an impaired immune system.
Unlike Demodex, sarcoptic mange is super itchy. The dog will scratch, the hair will fall out and scabs will form. The dog will start to smell unpleasant due to the secondary skin infection. Sarcoptic mange often starts on the ear tips and elbows, but it can quickly spread. Be warned that it can be passed on to humans, where it will cause a terrible rash that needs treatment.
Keep the critters away
Once you have a tick, flea or mite problem in your household, be prepared to do LOTS of cleaning. Flea eggs and larvae like hatching in nooks and crannies, so daily vacuuming is essential!
Keep the vegetation in your yard controlled, and change and wash the bedding of your pets very regularly. Check your dog for ticks after every walk outside. If one of your pets has mites, try to keep them separate from your other pets to avoid transmission.
Every year I see clients pay large amounts of vet fees to treat conditions that can be easily prevented. So please, please, please stay up to date with the flea/tick/mite control of ALL the cats and dogs in your household. Prevention is better (and much cheaper!) than cure. Do it all year round and don’t wait until there’s a problem.
We currently have a great number of excellent products available that can help aid in prevention, in both tablet and spot-on form that works for a month, three months or even six months.
Your vet or vet shop assistant will be happy to advise you based on your preferences and circumstances. Keep in mind that certain good products are ONLY suitable for dogs as they are toxic for cats. And always read the instructions!