Spring 2012 Flea and Tick Care for Dogs

Chances are your dog has had fleas and ticks, which have been bothering animals -- including humans -- since time immemorial. They are out in force this spring, which exterminator Alan Pendarvis of Texas credits to weather changes that are speeding up the parasites’ life cycles.

However, your dog doesn’t have to suffer this spring and summer. New products and a better understanding of how to combat flea and tick infestations can help your dog to steer clear of them.

Why Fleas and Ticks Are Bad News
Aside from the yuck factor, both fleas and ticks can spread diseases from dog to dog, and from dogs to humans. Nancy Hinkle, a University of Georgia entomologist, notes that fleas can transmit tapeworms. “An infected flea can pass on tapeworm if a dog happens to swallow a flea while using its teeth to scratch, but the tapeworm is not transmitted if the flea only bites the dog,” says Hinkle. “Some animals are also highly sensitive to flea saliva, which can lead to secondary infections and dermatitis from incessant itching.”

Ticks are equally awful, burying their heads into the skin of your dog and then sucking blood for survival. This too can spread infectious diseases.

Plan of Action: Flea and Tick Avoidance and Removal
New pest control products abound this spring, with many major manufacturers introducing new and improved versions of their already popular lines. Thanks to a clever plastic gizmo, topical liquids for some lines are easier to apply, helping to keep owners’ hands away from the skin-penetrating product.

A number of natural and/or organic alternatives are also on the market now. In addition to shampoos, you can find electric flea traps that attract fleas with heat and light and then zap them. Food-grade diatomaceous earth, a chalk-like powder that clings to the bodies of insects, works by cutting into their waxy coating and then gradually desiccating them. A drawback is that it can be a bit dusty and messy to use.

Buying Over-the-counter Meds Doesn’t Mean You Should Forget Your Vet
With so many products on the market, why did a recent pet health survey conducted by Banfield Pet Hospital find that flea infestation is one of the top 10 reasons owners bring their dogs to the vet? “I think this might result partly from pet owners buying preventive medications at retail outlets and not talking with their veterinarian about which product is best for their pet, how to apply it and how to avoid environmental contamination from fleas and flea eggs,” says Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, veterinarian, senior vice president and chief medical officer for Banfield.

He and other veterinarians can provide fast-acting medications that may provide quick relief. Nitenpyram, usually administered in pill form, starts working in 30 minutes and can eliminate fleas within three to four hours. Spinosad, a chewable tablet, works in about the same amount of time and prevents infestation for a whole month. These are just a few of the possible remedies.

No product is free from potential side effects, however, so follow user guidelines carefully. Kimberly Chambers of VetDepot offers this additional advice:

  • Consult your vet first. Even if you plan to purchase an over-the-counter remedy, talk to your vet beforehand.
  • Pay attention to age and weight guidelines. Failing to allow for these “could result in a dangerous overdose.”
  • Do not use a cat product on your dog, and vice versa.
  • Avoid getting topical flea-control products in your dog’s eyes and mouth.

“Flea protection is an important part of pet ownership,” says Chambers. “It not only saves pets from suffering from an itchy and uncomfortable infestation, but also protects pets from the dangers associated with fleas, including anemia.”

Finally, keep your home clean. Be sure to wash your pet’s bedding regularly and vacuum affected areas, including curtains, furniture and mattresses.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/magdasmith

Protect Your Dog This Summer

Dr. Katy Nelson, an emergency veterinarian, has already seen the impact summer can have on a dog: “A 5-month-old pit bull almost died in my hospital because his owner left him in the car to play 15 minutes of basketball,” she says.

Nelson’s first piece of advice for summer car trips is to leave your dog at home. Below, she offers do’s and don’ts for keeping your dog safe all season.

Do Be Breed-savvy
Some dogs fare better in hot weather than others. Flat-faced dogs -- such as pugs, bulldogs and Boston terriers -- have shorter respiratory tracts. This makes it more difficult for them to cool themselves, compared to their long-snouted compatriots. “A dog cools itself by panting. The smoosh-faced breeds have less surface area for the heat to dissipate in,” says Nelson.

Long-haired dogs are also more vulnerable to overheating, simply because a cool breeze doesn’t make it to their skin. To prevent your dog from possibly overheating, Nelson recommends cutting its hair in the summer.

Do Know the Signs of Summer Sicknesses

  • Heat exhaustion
    Signs of overheating include heavy panting, hyperventilation, increased salivation, weakness, confusion and even vomiting or diarrhea. If your dog exhibits any of these, get it into a cool space as quickly as possible and gently hose off your pet with lukewarm water.
  • GI problems
    Dogs that swim in ponds often ingest water infested with parasites. You can’t stop your pet from drinking, but you can watch it in the days that follow for signs of stomach upset, like vomiting or a stool change.
  • Lyme disease
    A dog that gets bitten by a tick in the summer may not start to exhibit symptoms until fall. Symptoms can include fever, loss of appetite, pain, arthritis, lethargy, depression and enlargement of the lymph nodes. Investigate the risk of ticks in your area before letting your dog run free, and scan its body for ticks after being in a woodsy area.

Don’t Forgo a Veterinary Visit
If your dog displays any of the previously mentioned problems, have it treated by a veterinarian as soon as possible, particularly in the case of heat exhaustion. Left untreated, problems and infections can quickly become serious, requiring hospitalization instead of outpatient treatment.

Don’t Skip Basic Safety Measures
Flea, tick and heartworm prevention medicines should be given all summer long. Check the expiration dates to make sure their ingredients are still active.

Pet owners with balconies need to take care that their dog is not on these structures without supervision. “Every summer we see a pet with what we call ‘high-rise syndrome.’ They lose their balance and fall off balconies, usually with tragic results,” says Nelson.

Lastly, never leave your dog in a parked car -- even with the windows open -- or tied up outside under a blazing sun.

With a little bit of caution, summer can be vacationlike for your canine too, even if it never leaves the shade of your neighborhood.

Top 5 Dog Summer Health Concerns

The hot and sunny stretches of summer can bring with them a whole set of health concerns for your dog. From parasite-spread illnesses to paw problems caused by walking on hot surfaces, a wide range of summer hazards can plague canines.

Here’s how you can keep your pet safe in the summer sun.

1. Heatstroke
"If we're hot sitting outside in T-shirts and shorts, our dogs are certainly going to be hot sitting outside in a heavy fur coat," says Adam Goldfarb, director of the Pets at Risk program for the Humane Society of the United States. Be mindful of what type of dog you have and how old it is -- these factors may determine your dog's tolerance for heat. Older dogs, puppies and northern breeds with heavy coats may have a harder time withstanding heat.

What to do:

  • Walk or exercise your dog in the early morning or early evening, when it's cooler out.

  • Never leave your dog in the car. A car can heat up within several minutes to more than 100 F, causing heatstroke or even death, says Lisa Peterson, communications director of the American Kennel Club.

  • Don't shave your dog's coat during the summer. "A dog's coat helps insulate them from the heat in the summertime," says Peterson. Without their protective coat, dogs can also get sunburned.

2. Fleas and Ticks
Some dogs have flea allergies that make them scratch until their skin is raw -- or in extreme cases, until they bleed. Ticks are even more dangerous because they carry a variety of diseases, including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, anaplasmosis and Ehrlichia. Symptoms of tick-borne diseases can range from the fever and swollen joints that afflict Lyme sufferers to possible death, as in the case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever victims.

What to do:

  • Find out from your veterinarian what type of anti-flea and tick medication is best for your dog.
  • Check your dog for ticks as soon as it comes in from the outdoors, since ticks can cling to its hair. If a tick bites your dog, remove it as soon as possible. (Use a blow dryer on the cool setting to help part the hair, Peterson recommends.)
  • Control fleas by vacuuming regularly -- particularly the areas where your dog lies -- to remove any adult fleas or eggs.

3. Paw Problems
The pads on your dog's paws are very sensitive, so the heat on concrete, asphalt, beach sand or other surfaces can be a big problem during the summer. The pads can burn, dry and crack.

What to do:

  • Walk your dog on the grass, Peterson recommends. That way, your pet doesn't have to deal with the intense heat of the pavement.
  • Try doggie booties. Some pet stores sell booties for your dog to wear in winter, but these shoes may also help protect your dog's paws during the summer.
  • Apply a paw balm to your dog's paws regularly to help keep them moist and prevent cracking, which is painful and can increase the risk of infection.

4. Water Safety
Wherever your family goes during the summer, be it the beach or backyard pool, be aware of the risks these bodies of water hold for your pooch. Dogs may drink from stagnant ponds and contract intestinal ailments, such as giardia. Canines may also jump into a lake or pool and panic when they realize they don't know how to get out. What’s more, pools contain chlorine, which can be harmful to your dog's health.

What to do:

  • If you have a pool, consider using dog-friendly pool chemicals, which are now commercially available.
  • Keep a life preserver on hand in case your dog jumps in. Dog life vests are also available.
  • Don't leave your pooch alone when there is an open body of water, as you wouldn’t leave a child in a similar situation. Make sure fresh drinking water is available at all times.

5. Wildlife Contagions
Dogs can pick up diseases, such as rabies, from infected animals from the wild, including bats, raccoons, foxes, skunks, cattle and coyotes. Rabies is transmitted through saliva, usually after a bite. The virus affects an animal's central nervous system, and common symptoms are erratic movements, partial paralysis and unprovoked aggression.

What to do:

  • Keep your dog's vaccinations against rabies up to date. "It's likely that your city or county requires your dog to be vaccinated anyway," Peterson says.
  • Don't let your dog roam free and unsupervised, particularly when you are in areas where Rover is more likely to encounter wildlife.

Supervision is the key to summer dog safety. "Be mindful of where your dog is," Peterson says. "If you let them off the leash, keep them in visual contact." That way, the “dog days” might just be some of the best days of the year that you and your dog will enjoy.

Tis' the Season...for Dog Depression

While many scientists now acknowledge that dogs and other mammals experience some emotions, such as disgust, anger, fear and even happiness, the emotional roots of other behaviors are not as clear-cut. For example, is your dog showing sympathy when you're crying by laying its head on your lap, or is it seeking comfort from you? Attributing human emotions to canine behaviors can be tricky.

That's especially true with respect to canine behavior that seems to suggest depression. Although clinical depression is a recognized condition in people, veterinary behaviorists aren't sure that such a condition exists in dogs. "We don't know for sure whether dogs get clinical depression -- but they can act depressed," says veterinary behaviorist Gary Landsberg of Thornhill, Ontario. Behaviors that appear to reflect depression in dogs include a decrease in appetite, less interaction with their owners, refusing to engage in normal activities -- such as play and training -- and generalized lethargy.

Whether or not dogs actually acquire clinical depression, we should still take steps to deal with behaviors that seem to indicate such conditions. Here's what Dr. Landsberg and other experts suggest:

See a Veterinarian A dog's depression-like behavior often signals the onset of a physical illness. "The No. 1 sign of many medical problems in dogs is a change in behavior, such as going off food, interacting less with owners and reacting less to stimuli," warns Dr. Landsberg. "Unless those behaviors are associated with dramatic changes in the household, they're likely to be a sign of medical illness. Have a veterinarian check your dog over."

Anticipate The aforementioned changes in the household, particularly the death or departure of an individual in the home, can trigger depression-like behaviors in dogs. This can also happen after the arrival of a new household member, such as a baby or additional pet. Even moving to a new home can cause canine mood changes. "You can prevent depressed behavior if you realize there's going to be a change in the household," says Dr. Landsberg. "Gradually adapt the dog to what the change will be like beforehand." For example, if a child in the family is leaving for college, have someone else take over the dog care duties that were assigned to the child before he or she leaves.

Take Care of Yourself Often a dog may appear to be depressed in response to similar behavior in its owner. For example, if an owner has a depressive condition, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), "the dog may act depressed in response to the human," points out Dr. Landsberg. "And if the owner doesn't exercise and the dog doesn't get enrichment like it gets during warmer weather, the dog might become depressed due to change in routine." The remedy here: Deal with your own low spirits first so that you can then take care of your dog.

Let Your Dog Help You If you've got the blues, just taking care of your dog can help you deal with them. "The depressed person should help himself or herself, but let the dog help them as well," says Dr. Landsberg. "Don't bring the dog down -- let the dog pull you up."

Dog Summer Bummer Diseases

Dr. Sheldon Rubin delivered sobering news to the owner of a schnauzer during a recent visit to his Chicago practice. The dog tested positive for heartworm and faced a long, expensive treatment involving painful shots, says Dr. Rubin, DVM, who is president of the American Heartworm Society.

The heartworm parasite in this case was most likely an unwelcome souvenir from last summer, believes Dr. Rubin, who is also a spokesperson for the American Veterinary Medical Association. A year ago, the affected dog’s owner had decided preventive medicine wasn’t necessary for a city pooch, but he learned the hard way that dogs are at risk no matter where they live.

In this case, heartworm is just one dog disease that is spread by vectors like mosquitoes, fleas and ticks. Vectors spread parasites and organisms by biting an infected animal then transporting the disease when they bite healthy animals. Although your dog can contract a vector-borne illness year-round, summer is a prime time for these diseases.

Summer Trouble
It makes sense that the risk expands exponentially in the summer. Time spent outside frolicking with your pal, whether in the backyard, at the beach or camping, means more potential exposure to diseases such as heartworm and Lyme disease. The same warm summer temperatures that lure us outdoors are the same ones that jump-start mosquito, flea and tick populations. “It only takes one mosquito bite,’’ Dr. Rubin says of mosquitoes carrying the heartworm parasite. “It’s not like it takes a bunch of mosquito bites to infect your animal.”

Dr. Stephen Steep believes yet another factor plays a role in spreading vector-borne diseases among dogs during the summer. We hit the road more at this time, and many of us bring our dogs along for the ride, says Dr. Steep, DVM, an Oxford, Mich., veterinarian and past president of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association. Unfortunately bug pests can hitch a ride during such trips. “We’ve dramatically increased our exposure,” he says. “If you go to a dog park, a dog there might have visited another part of the country and brought back a parasite.”

He and other veterinarians suggest that all dog owners, whether or not they are planning a summer trip, should educate themselves about these vector-borne diseases. Here’s a look at three of summer’s most common dog disease bummers:

Heartworm disease

  • Vector: Mosquito Heartworm is now present in all 50 states, says Dr. Rubin.

  • Symptoms Look for loss of breath, lack of stamina or coughing in your dog. By the time your pal shows symptoms, however, the disease is usually advanced. Heartworms infest the chamber of the right side of the heart and the arteries in the lungs. Chances are you’ve seen graphic depictions of the disease at your veterinarian’s office.

  • Prevention Heartworm is easily prevented through topical medication or a monthly pill, says Dr. Rubin. While some pet owners dispense the medication just during the height of mosquito season, Dr. Rubin recommends a year-round program. You’ll see an added bonus, he says. “Almost all of the heartworm medications prevent intestinal parasites.”

Lyme disease

  • Vector: Deer tick Even if you’re a conscientious dog owner who conducts tick checks on your dog, it’s not enough, says Dr. Steep. Deer ticks, the size of poppy seeds, are difficult to detect.

  • Symptoms Lyme disease is also difficult to recognize, and its symptoms resemble other diseases, says Dr. Steep. Look for muscle weakness, joint pain and limping in one front leg. Your dog will likely run a temperature. Lyme disease is treated with antibiotics.

  • Prevention A vaccine is available to protect against Lyme disease. Consider asking about it during your dog’s next visit to the veterinarian, since some dogs are at greater risk than others because of lifestyle or geographic location.

Erlichia

  • Vector: Tick The tick carries an organism that can infect the white blood cells of your dog.

  • Symptoms Erlichia, as for other parasitic ailments, can resemble different diseases. Look for spots of bleeding on your dog’s gums, lethargy or a loss of appetite. Erlichia develops in stages. The prognosis is good if the disease is diagnosed before the chronic stage. Because it is hard to recognize in its earliest phases, veterinarians will sometimes treat for erlichia with antibiotics before they make a firm diagnosis.

  • Prevention Tick control is the key. Don’t settle for a flea and tick collar, advises Dr. Steep. Collars often provide protection, but only for the region near your dog’s neck. Use prevention such as Frontline, Advantage or Revolution, which work systemically and provide whole-body protection.

Fortunately, West Nile virus and encephalitis, two other troubling vector-borne diseases, do not often affect dogs, says Dr. Rubin. For those diseases that do pose summertime threats, just a little work on your part can help prevent the debilitating and sometimes life-threatening health problems that could impact your tail-thumping pal. Your efforts carry an even greater reward, since many of these ailments, such as Lyme disease, can affect humans as well.

Think prevention, says Dr. Steep. Talk to your veterinarian, and educate yourself about which diseases are prevalent in your part of your country. Your veterinarian is also likely to know which medicines and products will work best in your area. Year-round prevention efforts are advised, says Dr. Rubin.

“Don’t put this off. Know that the potential exists,’’ says Dr. Steep. “Ask your veterinarian. It’s on our radar, and we’re thinking about it all the time.”