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Flea and Tick Season is Here

June 16, 2023 | General

Dealing with Fleas

Fleas feed on the blood of companion animals and their bites can lead to irritation and skin allergies. Sometimes these pests are no more than a nasty nuisance, but they have the potential to cause serious problems. Fleas can transmit tapeworms, bartonella bacteria, and can cause severe anemia in young animals.

They can also trigger a condition in pets called flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), which is characterized by a hypersensitivity reaction to flea bites. It’s important to note that it’s not the bite of a flea that makes your dog scratch; it’s the flea saliva, which can cause overwhelming irritation disproportionate to the actual number of fleas on your canine companion.

I strongly discourage pet parents from automatically applying potentially toxic chemical agents to furry family members or around their home to repel or kill pests. If, however, you live in a flea-endemic area and have a family member with FAD or an infestation that requires that you use these chemicals, follow these precautions:

  • Be very careful to follow dosing directions on the label, and if your pet is at the low end of a dosage range use the next lowest dosage. Be extremely cautious with small dogs, and do not under any circumstances apply dog product to your cat. Dr. Jean Dodds suggests the Spinosad class of drugs may have fewer side effects than isoxazoline products.
    Monitor your pet for adverse reactions after you apply a chemical product — especially when using one for the first time.
  • Don’t depend exclusively on chemical treatments. Rotate natural preventives with chemicals, including diatomaceous earth, pet-friendly essential oil products and natural deterrent collars. An every-other-month rotation works well for many pet parents in high-risk areas.
  • Since your pet’s liver will be tasked with processing the chemicals that make it into the bloodstream, it can be very beneficial to give her a supplement to help detoxify the liver. I recommend, at the very least, milk thistle, which is a general detox herb and helps to regenerate liver cells. Another product I recommend is chlorella, a super green food that is a very powerful detox agent.

If you’re using isoxazoline products, I also recommend giving GABA, glutathione, NAC (n-acetyl cysteine) and SOD (superoxide dismutase) to help decrease the potential for neurotoxicity.

Work with your integrative veterinarian to determine how much to give your dog or cat depending on her age, weight, and any medications she’s taking.

Dealing with Ticks

In deciding how to best protect your dog or cat from ticks, I recommend you assess your pets just as you assess the rest of your family. If you’re planning a hike in a high-risk area and plan to use chemicals to repel parasites on you or your kids, your dogs will also need the same level of protection (so you’ll need to be prepared with products from your veterinarian).

You also need to consider when pest season begins and ends where you live, your pet’s individual risk (e.g., do you go for long walks in the woods or do a lot of hiking? Does your furry family member have unrestricted access to the outdoors?), as well as the level of disease risk in your area.

Ticks are resilient and increasingly resistant to pesticides, and because they feed on many different animals (humans, dogs, cats, squirrels, mice, opossums, deer and more), and for long periods of time, they’re quite good at acquiring and transmitting diseases, some of which can be life-threatening.

So even if you opt to use chemicals on your human and animal family members, it’s still wise to do tick checks when you get home; don’t rely solely on any product and assume you’re protected. Common tick-borne diseases include:

  • Lyme disease
  • Cytauxzoonosis
  • Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
  • Ehrlichiosis
  • Anaplasmosis
  • Hepatozoonosis
  • Babesiosis
  • Tularemia

Unfortunately, a single tick bite can expose your whole family to multiple diseases, but exposure is not the same as infection. In many cases, your healthy pet will be able to fight off tick-borne diseases with no treatment required. The immune system of most dogs and cats does exactly what it’s supposed to do when a foreign bacterium enters the body — it mounts an effective immune response.

The only way to know if a pet has effectively eliminated the bacteria (was exposed but not infected) or is currently infected is to run a QC6 (Quantitative C6) test that differentiates exposure from infection. Sadly, large numbers of dogs and even some cats each year are unnecessarily treated with extensive antibiotic therapy because their veterinarians panic after seeing a positive exposure on a screening test. Please don’t let this happen to your pet!

Up to 90% of dogs in certain areas (and substantially fewer cats)5 may have been exposed to tick-borne pathogens, but most are able to fight off infection on their own. In those that do not, quickly identifying the problem and creating an appropriate treatment plan is crucial. I recommend that my clients who live in tick-endemic areas or who have pets who receive multiple tick bites each year have them screened for exposure every six months.
How do you make sure you’re catching possible tick-borne infections before they take hold? Ask your veterinarian to replace the standard heartworm test with a more comprehensive annual blood test that identifies several tick-borne pathogens long before pets show symptoms.

The SNAP 4Dx Plus (from Idexx Labs) and the Accuplex4 tests (Antech Diagnostics) that screen for heartworm, Lyme disease and two strains each of ehrlichia and anaplasma should be screening tests for animal companions in tick-endemic areas, in my opinion. Completing one of these simple blood tests every 6 to 12 months is the best way to:

  • Avoid unnecessary chemical preventive application
  • Identify infections before chronic disease occurs
  • Catch cases of dogs infected as a result of pesticide resistance (a growing problem)
  • I also recommend that pets living in tick-infested areas who test positive on the SNAP 4Dx Plus or the Accuplex4 also be screened for babesia exposure. The best way to detect exposure to this parasite is with a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test that checks for the presence of babesia DNA. Unfortunately, there isn’t a quick in-house test that checks for feline tick-borne diseases, probably because they occur in much lower frequency, compared to dogs.

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