by Carol McCarthy
So you can’t remember the last time you plucked a tick off your pup or flicked a flea off your feline. That’s great! But it doesn’t mean you can let down your guard when it comes to prevention. Protecting your pets from parasites that bring discomfort and disease requires precision and persistence. Avoid these common mistakes to keep your pet healthy.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM
A study published in Preventive Veterinary Medicine in 2010 found that only 50 percent of pet parents visiting the vet in winter were using preventative flea and tick treatments compared to 85 percent in spring. But stopping treatment in winter is not a good idea. “Only using flea and tick medicine in the summer puts your pet at risk of new or recurring problems,” says Dr. Neil Marrinan of Old Lyme Veterinary Hospital in Old Lyme, Conn., who notes that fleas can survive in winter and will hatch on any warm body they find.
Most ticks can survive the cold, too, says Dr. Cynthia Cox of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-Angell Animal Medical Center. “Even in 2015, when the Northeast was buried in snow, most ticks survived because the snow served to insulate them.”
Treat your cats and dogs year-round to keep ticks and fleas at bay.
“Not administering the product properly will, in most cases, result in the pet not getting adequate protection,” says Dr. Cox. “We recommend that people follow the directions carefully, and if they’re unsure of what they’re doing, to call their veterinarian for assistance.”
If you tend to forget your pet’s monthly topical treatment or oral medicine, for example, put reminders on your calendar at home and on your mobile device. Or try treating your pet on the same day every month to make it easier. For instance, the first day of the month or the date that is your favorite number.
“Alternating products month by month can reduce their efficacy,” Dr. Marrinan says. While it might be tempting to buy what is on sale at the pet supply store one month, stick to the same product—as long as it is working and your pet tolerates it well. Consult your vet for the most appropriate and most cost-effective treatment.
Dosage is the most important factor for effective prevention, Dr. Cox says. “Cat owners, for instance, should never apply a preventative marketed for dogs because the dosage could make a cat seriously ill, or even kill them,” she says. Cat owners should apply only products intended for felines, and dog owners should apply only those marketed for canines, she stresses.
In addition to some products being appropriate for cats and others for dogs, treatment dosages are broken down within those categories by the size of the animal. You don’t want to give a Maltese a dosage meant for a Mastiff and vice versa. “Under-dosing is ineffective, and overdosing is also a risk,” Dr. Marrinan says.
Don’t assume your indoor cat can’t get fleas or ticks from your dog just because you treat the dog. Fleas and ticks can come into your house a number of ways, including on your own body or clothes. Your yard, neighborhood, and the animals that live there are likely hosts.
“Using treatments smartly and protecting all the pets in a home can prevent flea problems in homes near wildlife or in neighborhoods where other animals are unprotected,” Dr. Marrinan says.
Ticks carry a variety of infections that can sicken your pet and veterinary medicine currently has a vaccine for only one of them: Lyme disease. Even if your dog is vaccinated for Lyme, he still needs preventive tick treatment year-round, Dr. Marrinan stresses. And always bring your pet to the vet if you suspect tick-borne illness.
“We are seeing a rise in once-exotic tick borne illnesses, such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, so if a pet is exhibiting symptoms of lethargy, fatigue, loss of appetite, joint pain, etc., owners should bring them in for an exam, Dr. Cox says. “And be sure to tell your veterinarian if you pet has been spending time outside or, especially, in a heavily wooded area.”
Luckily, protecting pets from fleas and ticks is easier than ever. There are several options available: from monthly oral medicines given as treats, to topical liquids applied at your dog’s shoulders or cat’s head monthly, to time-release collars that last several months. And ensuring consistent preventative treatment is the responsibility of not just pet parents but vets as well.
According to the authors of an article for the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “There is clearly a need for the veterinary profession to be more pro-active in communicating the risks of parasitism and benefits of preventive medications to clients.”
When it comes to protecting our pets from parasites, vets and pet parents are in it together.