Fleas, Ticks and Worms…Oh My! Val Cairney
Welcome to this episode of Val Talk’s Pets. It’s that time of year when we need to address fleas, ticks, worms and other parasites and nasty things dogs and cats can get.
I have been exceptionally lucky in that not one of my pets since I left the big city more than twenty years ago, has ever had fleas. And I can’t say that I’ve been particularly proactive in the past with flea prevention. Again, as I said, I’ve been very lucky. But, times are changing with regards to climate and that has a lot to do with the flea and tick cycles. Where I live we used to have a pretty deep freeze during winter with significant snow. As things have been changing with climate, our winters have been not quite as snowy and the real dip in temperatures has not lasted more than a few days before the temperature goes back up. All of this has changed the way fleas and ticks survive and how they end up on our pets. Last year, my dog had 4 ticks, one cat had two and my senior cat had one. I have never ever had ticks on my animals, never!! So, that is quite a change.
So let’s start with fleas. Ugg!! Fleas are horrible. They crawl on our pets, feed off their blood, bite us, live in our carpets, couches and baseboards, and generally make everything nasty. Not to mention they can get out of hand very fast and before you know it, there is an infestation. If the infestation is bad enough, you will actually see fleas jumping and even worse jumping on you as they smell you as dinner! So what can we do? Well, let me start with prevention and then I’ll move to how to get rid of them. Depending on where you live, you may have to deal with fleas all year round. That means that routinely you are using some kind of flea prevention. If you live where there is a significant winter, many people discontinue flea treatment throughout the cold months. If that is the case by March it is suggested that you start your pet back onto their flea prevention. As soon as the temperature rises and the snow starts to melt away, the fleas become active. Here are some numbers that will probably make you cringe. In as little as 15 days the flea life cycle is completed. In 30 days, 10 fleas can multiply into thousands of fleas. Say a live flea comes into your house on your pet, this is what will happen. The flea will feed off your pet or get what they call a blood meal. The blood meal will stimulate egg laying, which the female does on your pet. Here’s where it gets even ick-ier, the eggs do not stick to the pet’s skin or hair, so the eggs actually fall off contaminating your floors, carpets, bedding, couch etc. Then the eggs become larvae which uses their chewing mouth part to settle deeper into the surface. Then the larvae becomes a pupae and at this point, no treatment can control the pupae because it has a cocoon that shields it. Guess what is next? Full blown live flea. This is so disgusting, so the best thing to do is prevent any fleas from coming in and if they do, you need to treat your house immediately.
Starting with the prevention for your pet, there are some choices. Collars, topicals and ingestibles. Let’s start with collars. Some collars emit a gas that repels fleas and ticks. Some have an active ingredient that seeps into the pet’s fat layer and uses the pet’s natural skin oils to distribute the ingredient. When a flea or tick bites the pet, the pest dies on contact. Flea collars can be great for ticks and also for extra protection if your pet is going outside or on a hike into the forest. You can put the collar on for the activity and then remove it and store in a baggy for the next trip. This is a great option to doubly protect your pet if they are on another monthly flea and tick prevention. Another great use for flea collars is to put one in your vacuum if you have been dealing with a flea infestation. Collars can actually be a bit more effective for ticks because ticks like the soft area around a pet’s ears or neck and this is right where the collar fits. This does mean however, that the hind quarters are exposed and not protected. Two of the ticks on my dog last year, were on his back and his stomach. So, final outcome on collars, is that they can be a great supplemental prevention, they are cheaper than other treatments, but you need to get a good quality flea collar and be mindful of the ingredients and children being around the collar.
Topicals or drops are the little vials you get and you break one and squeeze the liquid usually between the pet’s shoulder blades. Some will have you place drops one by one down the pet’s back. Generally they come in 4 month and 6 month supplies. You would use one application a month. Topicals range in price and some do only fleas, and others do flea, ticks and mosquitoes. Now, that’s a nice perk. They range in price and some are quite expensive. Topicals or drops are administered down into the pet’s skin and then the active ingredients seeps into skin and then become part of the system that provides oils to their skin and fur. When the pest bites the pet, they die. Some of the insecticide will be in every drop of their skin oil. This will usually be within a short time of dosing your pet. Don’t be alarmed if you see active fleas after dosing if there are already fleas on your pet. The insecticide affects the flea’s body so the fleas become hyper active as they begin to die. Some topicals will have a growth inhibitor as well. Seeing as the embryos are almost impervious, this growth inhibitor will prevent them from maturing. The benefit of topicals are that they are full bodied protection and only one application per month is needed.
The most important thing about topicals is that you must make sure you are getting the correct dose for the size of your dog. And dog applications cannot be used on a cat. Make sure you know your pet’s weight and read the box carefully and ask your pet professional for the correct product.
Okay. Ingestibles. What is going on with these? These are those little chewables or pills you give the dog or cat to eat. The insecticide is delivered in the same way as a topical in that the pet has to be bitten and then the pest dies. It depends on the active ingredient of the chewable how the flea cycle is dealt with. Some kill adult fleas when they bite and some do not, but attack the larvae so they cannot mature. Again, read the information on the product and ask your pet professional for advice.
Other options for combating fleas come in the form of flea powder, flea spray and flea shampoo. All of these really are for when you are already battling fleas, not as prevention. The mistake people often make is not reading the directions. One of the important parts of using flea shampoo is that you have to leave it on for at least 7 to 10 minutes in some cases. When advising people on this type of flea treatment I always refer them to this direction and tell them to get a toy or something to chew to keep the pet occupied while they wait drenched in soap. You can just imagine how well this goes down when the bathing subject is a cat!
The thing to remember is that these products, all of them are delivering an insecticide. This is why it is important to wash your hands when dealing with any of these products and be aware of interaction with the pet and children. Flea collars are an ongoing issue with this. Topicals and ingestibles you need to be careful within the first 24 hours for sure. Also, remember that size of pet is important when getting the correct dose and again, never give a cat, dog treatment or vice versa. Now here is another very important thing about flea treatments. When you read the box for either dog or cat treatments, you will notice that they say you cannot use the product for a kitten under 12 weeks or a puppy under 6 months. These rules do vary product to product, but make sure you read what the restriction is.
We know that kittens are often acquired from a barn or being strays so kittens having fleas is actually fairly common. Puppies coming from a proper shelter should not have fleas, and purchasing a puppy from a breeder or someone selling pups, again should not have fleas. If you are picking up a puppy from someone selling puppies, check immediately and thoroughly for fleas or evidence of fleas which is the black pepper like dots you see near the skin. That’s the flea dirt left behind from the blood meal. Personally, there is no way I would hand over money to someone for a puppy if it had fleas or any evidence of fleas. This to me would just be an indicator of the poor care the pup has been receiving. I’ll take the puppy and immediately get it treated, but I wouldn’t pay for a puppy with fleas.
Okay, so off topic a bit. What do you do when you have a kitten or puppy under the age for flea treatment and they have fleas!? Believe it or not here is the trick. There is a dish soap on the market known for cleaning wildlife that has been covered in oil. The reason this product works is due to its very thick nature and some of the de-greaser properties. It’s this thickness that becomes our flea fighter. Bath the kitten or puppy in this particular dish soap, leaving the suds on the pet for at least 5 to 7 minutes and then rinse. Keep a bowl of water near buy, in case live fleas come up to the surface essentially running away from the soap. Pick them off and put them in the bowl of water to drown them. The soap is suffocating the fleas. That’s how this works. It’s the only thing you can do if there is a flea infestation on a kitten or puppy under the age the products you have chosen will allow. Prevention is difficult when they are under age, so to speak, so be diligent. You can also ask your veterinarian for advice as well.
All right! Next let’s deal with ticks. Ticks are serious. They can carry Lyme disease and that is not something you want nor do you want your pet to contract. First line of defense is to have the pet on a tick prevention regimen. The up side here is that you can get your flea and tick prevention together. So, what happens when a tick latches onto your pet? When the tick first jumps onto your pet, they can be as small as a pinhead and extremely hard to see. Once they penetrate the skin and start to feed on the pet’s blood, they get bigger or become engorged. At its largest, a tick could even get to the size of a grape. But, we are never going to let that happen. I think the largest I have seen on my dog was about the size of a dried red lentil. So, not very big, but big enough that when we ran our fingers through his fur we felt that bump. When you feel that little bump, separate the fur and see if you have a tick. Now here is the important part, a tick needs at least 24 hrs more likely 48 hours to transmit any diseases. So, if you check your pet diligently, and get the tick removed right away, you have drastically reduced your pet’s chances of getting a tick borne illness. So, don’t try any home remedies to get the tick to back out. Remove it!
So how do you that? I keep a tick key handy but you can do this with a pair of fine tipped tweezers. Grip the tick as close to the skin as possible or use your key to slide it between the tick and the skin. Pull straight up! Now, I can tell you that my husband and I in removing the ticks last year, found that these little buggers hold on pretty tight. You have to give a pretty good pull and one removal had our dog give a little yelp. So, be prepared for that. Now, I know that the thing everyone is scared about is getting the head or actually what is the mouth parts that have attached to the skin. If this does get left behind, don’t worry too much because if the pet has been on the prevention medication, that mouth part will dry up and fall out. Basically, the tick will ingest the blood and then start to quickly die. It’s like they get on the host, dig in and then go, uh oh this is not good, but they can’t back out, so they just hang on and die. So, when you find a tick on your dog or cat that has had medication, most likely the tick sucked up enough blood to get the insecticide and then died, so we are essentially removing the dead tick. But not always, so be prepared to see those little legs do a bit of a dance when you remove it. Uggg!! It’s possible without detection they would eventually shrivel up and fall off but we want them off as soon as possible to prevent any chance of that infected saliva from getting into our pet’s bloodstream.
Once you have removed the tick its good practice to wash the area with warm soapy water or spray a pet antiseptic on the area. Its possible there may be a bit of swelling, but keep an eye on it as that usually goes down within a few hours. What’s really important to watch for, is that telltale bullseye ring around the area where the tick had imbedded. I would be making a trip to the vet if I saw that. Other things to watch for are swelling, pain, fever, lack of appetite and at worst, seizures. These symptoms could indicate a tick bite you were not able to catch and the tick was infected. Head to your vet right away. There is also a rare paralysis tick but not so rare in Australia for example. This tick will bite and the pet will experience a horrible paralysis that requires emergency vet care. So, make sure you know what potential tick borne illness are prevalent in your community.
So, let’s recap a bit because that is a lot of information. Flea and tick medication is a must. Choose either a topical drop or a chewable or pill. Supplement with a flea collar when being active outside and make sure that collar is for fleas and ticks. Make sure you get the right dose based on size. Remember very young kittens and puppies cannot take many medications. Dog and cat medication is not transferable. Check your pet frequently for ticks and remove right away. Wash the area and keep an eye out for any symptoms that require medical care.
Now, that we are doing our best to prevent any infestations, what do we do if we already have a flea infestation. I hate to tell you this, but this is a very difficult road. Be prepared to spend a fair bit of money and to be rather frustrated. You will need to wash whatever you can in hot water. You will need to get a proper flea spray for premises for your house. Make sure you get flea premise spray not the spray for the pet. You will need to spray your baseboards, cracks and crevices, couches, bedding. And don’t make the mistake that many make which is spraying everything and then vacuuming. Don’t! Put a flea collar in your vacuum. Do a good vacuum, empty the bag or canister outside. Spray! Leave it. Do not vacuum for several days. When you do, spray again. Bath the pets in flea shampoo. Give them their treatment. And repeat the house thing again, and again until you get this under control. So, now you can see why it’s really important to prevent, instead of deal, with an infestation.
Okay so, we have covered fleas and ticks so let’s talk about parasites or worms! Some people do a routine worming of their pets. I can see that depending on where you live and the activities of your pets. If your cat goes outside and routinely brings you presents of mice, chipmunks etc. and has been eating them, you should routinely worm your cat. Rodents will definitely pass worms onto your cat if they are eating them. Dogs seem to get worms a bit intermittently. Puppies always need to be wormed as do kittens. Kittens and puppies can pick up worms in utero if the mother is a carrier so that means stray cats and feral cats are particularly susceptible to pass on worms to their kittens.
Puppies are not always born with worms but most are. When the mother is pregnant her rising progesterone levels cause immature worm larvae in her muscles to awaken and swim right through the uterine wall, then on into the puppy, before it is even born. By two or three weeks of age, puppies are shedding worm eggs and infecting each other. The worms can be passed through the milk as well. It is recommended that puppies be wormed every two weeks until they are 12 weeks and the same goes for kittens. The best thing to do is use a broad spectrum wormer. This is a wormer that will treat the most common worms which are roundworms, hookworms, whipworms and tape worms.
Only two of these types of worms can be seen in the stool with the naked eye. They are round worms and tapeworms. Round worms look like threads of spaghetti anywhere from 2 to 4 inches long when you see them. Tapeworms look like pieces of rice coming from the pet’s bum and when they sit, the little piece will wiggle for a bit then die. That is the pieces of the tapeworm being sloughed off as it grows. I know! So disgusting. The other two worms are living and attaching in the small and/or large intestine, so this is why you do not see them.
Okay, so medication. At one time it was normal for pet specialty to sell worming medication. However, in Canada, these were de-listed and so no longer available in retail. A trip to the vet is necessary if worms are present. The frustration here is from the people who like to worm routinely as a prevention. These customers do not want to go to the vet and pay for a visit and medication and often be told to bring a fecal sample. Many pet parents have explored alternative or holistic worming products. Some of these are actually quite effective but unfortunately, many of these were also de-listed from retail. Some companies have gone through the processes of registration etc. and have been able to get their natural wormers back on the retail market. These products will vary from store to store. If you are able to find a natural wormer, read the box and see what worms it can address. Sometimes tape worms are not on the list because tapeworms can be very difficult to get rid of. Personally, if I was dealing with a tapeworm, I would go to the vet for the pill. It is only one pill and very inexpensive, I guess depending your veterinarian and if you are seeing those grain of rice type looking pieces, your pet has a tapeworm. There is no need to test poop for this. So, I have found my vet to be pretty amicable in the past to let me just have the pill. I think why vet’s want the fecal sample is so they may test for whip and hook worms that you cannot see.
Usually if a pet has a tapeworm it’s quite possible they have other worms as well. So, the vet is just being cautious. Anyway, if you are thinking of doing a routine type worming one product called Diatomaceous Earth can very helpful. Diatomaceous earth is powder of a naturally occurring fresh water sediment. It has microscopic remains of shells and prehistoric diatoms which is the most common form of phytoplankton. It is very important to make sure you get food grade diatomaceous earth. So, how does it work? For intestinal parasites the microscopic shell particles slice up the parasite. Then the remains are just pooped out. So here’s the thing about diatomaceous earth. It works on anything with an exoskeleton. Meaning that either internally or externally it can work on parasites and can help control fleas and ticks and you can use it in your garden on ants, slugs etc. The microscopic shells and diatoms are like little shards of glass, so they cut into the outer shell of the pest and then they dehydrate and die. This is definitely an option for routine worming and you just follow the directions on the container as to how much you put into the pet’s food and for how long. One time, I caught my dog drinking from a bucket of water outside that had accumulated rain water and before I knew it, it had little bugs swimming in it and this is what he was drinking. I immediately started him on Diatomaceous earth for a regime, just in case!!
Okay, so bottom line on wormers. It’s almost impossible to get wormers in retail. There are some options for natural wormers but you will have to read what the products actually addresses. Diatomaceous earth is a good option but make sure it is food grade! Very important. Don’t cheap out on this.
And one other thing that has cropped up. In spring you might find little round red dots on your pet’s stomach. My dog gets these and these seem to be pretty itchy if not a bit sore. Guess what? Black fly bites. Yup, these incredibly annoying little tiny flies also get to our pets. Use a nice soothing pet ointment until the initial bite reaction goes down. I like to use a very natural ointment that has witch hazel in it because that will help with the itch.
Well I hope this has helped as we move into bug season! Remember, your best defence is to protect your pet.
So, that brings me to my pet peeves section. This part is reserved solely for opinion and a bit of a vent. I think my biggest pet peeve here is about the bugs themselves. I hate fleas and I hate ticks. I know they are just trying to survive in our ecosystem, but man can they be annoying and also cause some serious illness. This is why it is frustrating when someone comes in and they say they have fleas and they are getting bit as well as the pet and they walk away with a flea collar thinking this will do the trick, despite being told that this will not deal with the infestation and you are just asking for trouble. I know the cost can add up to deal with an infestation, but what are you choices here? Well, the biggest choice here is to think ahead and be prepared. Protect your pet, do some reading and ask questions, because as I say, KNOWING IS CARING!
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Hi everyone, and welcome to Val Talk’s Pets, the forum for pet parents and enthusiasts alike. So, I have been working in the pet industry now for almost 10 years and, on a daily basis, I handle a lot of issues and questions arising from pet parents. I am not a veterinarian but I do have certifications in Canine, Feline, Small Animal, Fish and Herptile and Avian Health and Nutrition from the University of California, Davis Extension, the Vet College.