External Parasites in Pets

A guide to help you keep your pet safe from external parasites.

An important component of responsible pet ownership is providing your pet with proper grooming care for their skin and coat.  To overlook this issue could result in serious health problems for your pet. 

Following is information about the three most common types of external parasites that can be harmful to your pet:

FLEAS are small, wingless blood -feeding insects that are dark brown in color and approximately the size of a sesame seed.    Adult fleas are one of the most common causes of skin problems in dogs and cats.   Your pet can pick up fleas wherever an indoor or outdoor infestation exists.

Fleas can be difficult to detect because they move quickly through your pet’s coat.  The most common symptom is excessive scratching.  If you suspect that your pet may have fleas, there two “at home” examinations that you can do prior to scheduling an appointment with your veterinarian.  1.  Run a flea comb through the fur on the back area and near the base of the tail on your pet.   You may see live fleas or “flea dirt” on the comb.  Dirt is the excrement left behind after the flea has taken its meal and looks like ground pepper. It can be identified by putting some on a damp tissue.  If it turns a rusty red color, your pet has fleas.  2.  If you do not have a flea comb, place your pet on a white towel or sheet and rub the coat vigorously to loosen up any flea dirt that might exist.  Then wet the flea dirt to see if it turns red.

Detection of fleas is important to obtain as early as possible for two reasons.  1.  Some pets develop an allergy to flea saliva and may require medications to ease their discomfort and irritation.  Also, overly irritated skin will make it easier for secondary bacterial infections to occur.  2.  Other health issues may include tapeworm infections caused by ingesting fleas carrying tapeworms, and Iron Deficiency Anemia.  Anemia causes decreased red blood cells and is life threatening.

To control fleas on your pet and in the environment it is important to understand the life cycle of the flea.   Adults feed on the pet and lay eggs, which fall to the floor, into cracks, onto your furniture, in carpeting, on the grass or in the bedding.  Eggs hatch in a few days into larvae that feed on any debris they can find.  Then they spin a cocoon around themselves and eventually emerge as full-grown adults ready to feed.   Effective flea control includes addressing both your pet’s needs and the surrounding environment.  This is especially important in cases of severe flea infestation as your pet’s health can be extremely compromised.

TICKS are eight-legged blood feeders.  There are 800 different species of ticks.  Pets most at risk for tick borne illnesses are individuals exposed to grassy and/or wooded areas populated by wild animals.  Ticks live in a variety of natural areas including grasses, shrubs and undergrowth. They drop onto animals as they pass.   You may see both nymphs and adult ticks on your pets.  The unfed tick appears as a small crawling bug.  These parasites attach to the host and feed for 12-24 hours then fall off.  Once attached to your pet, they swell up until they look like a plump raisin.  They spend 10% of their life attached to their hosts.   Immediate skin reactions and other symptoms can include, skin damage, irritation and inflammation, hypersensitivity, anemia and paralysis.  Ticks carry and transmit some of the following diseases:  Lyme disease, canine Ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Most ticks are called three host ticks because during their development, they feed on three different hosts.  All ticks have four stages to their life cycle:  egg, larvae, nymph and adult.  Adults lay eggs on the ground in the spring.  The eggs hatch into larvae which then find an animal (the first host, which is usually a bird or rodent), live off its blood for several days, then detach and fall back onto the ground.  In the ground, the well-fed larvae molt into the next stage and are called nymphs.   Nymphs remain inactive during the winter months and become active in the spring.  At that point, they find an animal (the second host a rodent, pet or human) and feed again.  Once fed, the nymph detaches and falls back to the ground.  Here it molts and changes into an adult.  Both adult male and female ticks now find another animal (the third host a rodent, deer, pet, or human) and feed on blood and mate.  Once fed, both males and females fall back to the ground.  The male now dies while the female lays eggs thus completing the cycle.  Each female tick lays approximately 3000 eggs.

Effective tick control includes the following preventative measures.  1.  Check your pet for ticks every time he or she comes inside.  2.  Consult your veterinarian about topical flea/tick control prescriptions.  3.  Consult your veterinarian for advice about the Lyme disease vaccination.

EAR MITES are a common, microscopic crab-like bug that lives and breeds in the ear canal of your cat or dog.  They are more commonly observed in cats that come into direct contact with other cats that are host to the mite.   Ear mites are difficult to detect because they are microscopic.  Symptoms include frequent head shaking, rubbing and scratching of ears; a thick and dark gritty build up inside the ear and a noxious smell coming from the ears.  If left untreated, ear mites can cause bacterial and/or yeast infections.  In severe cases, the scratching and head shaking can lead to a rupture of the eardrum.  This will produce a hematoma (an accumulation of blood and serum) in the earflap, which could result in seizures and/or deafness.

Prevention is always a key ingredient to the health of your pet.  Consult your veterinarian about the type of ear cleaning protocols you should use for your pet.  If you suspect that your pet has ear mites, seek treatment through your veterinarian as soon as possible.  Treatment of may include a thorough ear cleaning and medication.

MANGE MITES:  The two types of mange mites typically seen in companion animals include Sarcoptic and Demodectic.

Sarcoptic mites cause sarcoptic mange, commonly known as scabies.  Dogs of any age are the typical scabies patient and can be afflicted during any time of year.  Scabies is highly contagious and the mites are passed by close contact with infested animals, bedding or grooming tools.  The mites burrow through the top layer of the skin and cause intense itching.  This can lead to secondary skin infections.  Treatment includes medication to kill the mites and additional treatment to soothe the skin and resolve related infections.  Cleaning and treatment of the dog’s environment is also very important.

Demodectic mites cause demotectic mange.  Dogs and immune compromised cats are the typical patient.  These mites are microscopic and shaped like a cigar.  Examining a sample of a skin scraping provides the diagnosis.  Typically demodectic mites are not highly contagious but can be passed from a mother to her puppies.  Most pups will not show any clinical signs of infestation.  If they do, most cases are resolved before the puppy reaches one year of age.  Demodectic mange in adults may indicate an underlying medical condition.  Your pet’s overall health should be carefully evaluated.  Demodectic mange is rare in cats, but the same general principles and descriptions apply.

There are two forms of demodectic mange.  1.  Localized demodectic mange tends to appear as patches of redness around the eyes and mouth, and in some cases the legs and trunk.  The skin can also become slightly crusty.  Treatment generally results in favorable outcome.  2.  Generalized demodectic mange affects large areas of the dog’s skin with patches of redness, hair loss and scaliness.  Treatment is generally difficult and can only control the condition rather than cure it.

In conclusion, always look for fleas, ticks and other skin abnormalities when petting or grooming your pet.  Consult with your veterinarian if you see anything unusual or if your pet seems to be uncomfortable or suffering from pain.  Prompt treatment and prevention is extremely important for the health of your pet AND your entire family.  The presence of fleas, ticks and sarcoptic mange mites can also affect the health of the human members of your family. 

External Parasites in Pets

Connecticut Humane Society

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Copyright 2013 Connecticut Humane Society

Copyright 2013 Connecticut Humane Society