We all know that your dogs are supposed to be on a form of heartworm prevention and parasitic prevention. But, what exactly does that mean? And why is it so important? Its just a few bugs, right? Actually its extremely important! Dogs that are left unprotected can develop heart failure, hookworm or flea anemia, and even sudden death. To understand how that can happen, we need to delve into heartworm, intestinal parasites, and external parasites.
We'll start with one of the most commonly known ones: external parasites; fleas and ticks (mosquitos will be covered during the heartworm portion.) Fleas and ticks are parasites that latch onto your pets skin, biting and reproducing. Flea and tick bites are extremely uncomfortable (and extremely itchy!) Many pets are allergic to flea salvia resulting to rashes and skin infections from the constant itching. Ticks also create an allergic reaction affect to their host, most dogs will have a small granulomas (small mass of tissue under the skin as a response to infection, inflammation, or presence of foreign body) due to allergy to the salvia ticks excrete. Beyond the discomfort fleas and ticks carry very infectious diseases! Ticks can carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Lyme disease, and Ehrlichiosis which both humans and dog can be infected by. Fleas carry diseases as well, often times they carry tapeworms and Bartonellosis (cat scratch disease which is a bacterial infection passed from cats to humans through contact with an infected cat; leading to bacteria to affect and infection the blood stream and heart valves). Now, ticks are a parasite that your your pets are most commonly exposed to when hiking or trekking through parts of the woods (this doesn't exclude the possibility of your pet getting these parasites from hitching a ride on you, other pets, etc) . Most preventatives don't cover the prevention of ticks, if you plan on hiking or live in heavily wooded area you should consider using preventatives that cover ticks. Whether or not you use preventives that include tick prevention, you should consider at least adding the lyme vaccination to your yearly check up. Studies have shown a decline in the contraction of lyme disease in vaccinated patients that have been exposed to the bacteria, and while no vaccine is 100%, it is a form of prevention that could save your pet. Fleas on the other hand can affect your pet whether or not they go outdoors. Flea prevention is necessary to keep your pet safe and overall healthy. If fleas are left untreated it can lead to a flea infestation that can be very hard to treat. A bad flea infestation can take over your house and even cause flea anemia in your pet. Flea anemia is a serious condition that is caused when the amount of blood taken by fleas causes an auto-immune reaction and your pet's body can no longer function properly. In very serious cases your pet can even require a blood transfusion which is something that we have both seen pretty often at our Vet ER. To prevent fleas your pet should be on a form of flea prevention monthly. If your pet has fleas that need to be taken care of immediately, a flea bath will work to provide some relief (bonus tip: specific flea wash isn't necessary as Dawn Dish soap will kill fleas as well! Just don't use it to bathe your pet regularly because the harsh soap will strip your pet's natural skin oil and case dryness).
Next on the list of parasites is intestinal parasites, these include roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, giardia, coccidia, and tapeworms. Roundworms the most common type of intestinal parasite, they live in your dogs' intestines and deprive them of nutrients. Roundworms can be transmitted in utero, through nursing, ingestion of larvae, and contact with infected feces. Puppies will usually be put on anti-parasitic medication or prescription grade dewormer (via a vet) to remove the roundworm burden, and if you older dog contracts roundworm they will be put on a prescription grade dewormer via your vet. Hookworms are a parasite that attach to wall of stomach or intestinal lining puncturing blood vessels to feed on blood. Hookworms can be one of the most deadly types of intestinal parasites, if they are left untreated will often lead to hookworm anemia. Hookworm anemia, similar to flea anemia is when serious condition that is caused when the amount of blood taken by the hookworms causes an auto-immune reaction and your pet's body can no longer function properly. In severe cases patients require nasogastric tube placement is required to start supplemental feeding as well. Hookworms are also passed from nursing in puppies, eating larvae, and through direct penetration of the skin. Hookworms need to be treated with prescription grade dewormer per your Veterinarian to avoid extensive treatment and extensive stays in the ER.
Next on the list on of intestinal parasites are whipworms, which are intestinal parasites that live in the large intestine (cecum and colon) and attach themselves to the mucosal lining. Hookworms are passed when they eat infected feces, licking/eating/interacting with infected materials, and drinking/playing in contaminated water. These parasites are also treated with prescription grade de-wormer per your Veterinarian. Tapeworms are flat segmented worms that live in the intestinal tract, growing and absorbing your pets nutrients. These parasites are passed from eating infected animals and through flea bites. Tapeworms can be treated with oral or injectable de-wormer, sometimes injectable de-wormer will be used to help dissolve the worms faster. Lastly on the list are giardia and coccidia. Giardia is a single celled organism that takes up residence in the small intestine, when enough of these organisms develop it can lead to an infection called giardiasis. These parasites are passed through contaminated drinking water and eating feces. Treating this parasite can be quite difficult and can require different antibiotics depending on the severity of the infection. Coccidia are single celled organisms that cause infections in the intestinal tract. Coccidia unlike its counter part giardia is passed through ingesting contaminated soil (not water) or feces. Coccidia like giardia is treated with antibiotics, most times veterinarian's will also prescribe prescription grade dewormer. Now how can all of these icky parasites and worms be prevented?! That's right preventatives! Widespread preventatives will work to fight off intestinal parasites and keep your pet avoiding all of the above.
And here we are to the mosquito and heartworm portion of the article. I'm sure everyone remembers that when getting your dogs yearly exam and to get your pets heartworm prescription, the Veterinarian will require a heartworm test. Why is that? Well heartworm is prevention, therefor it they do not stop an infection. What does it do? Heartworm clears up larval infections that have already happened so that they cannot grow into heartworms. Heartworm is passed through mosquitos, when a mosquito bites an infected animal it picks up baby worms (known as microfilaria) laid by the adult female heartworm. These larvae then develop and mature over time, when this mosquito bites another animal these larvae are deposited on the animals skin and enter the animal's bloodstream via the mosquito bite.
Over the next 6 months these larvae will grow into the adult heartworms that live in the arteries, blood vessels, lungs, and arteries causing irreversible damage. Your dog's heartworm preventative will kill any infective larvae that enter your dog's body, preventing any adult heartworm infection. Heartworm prevention is required to have a prescription because, if your dog has an active infection when given the preventative they can have a life-threatening reaction and die. If heartworm is contracted, the first step will be exercise restriction, oral antibiotics and steroids, and finally a series of intramuscular anti-parasitic injections till the injection is cleared up. Heartworm can cause lasting heart, lung, and liver problems in your dog even after treatment. Therefor, the best form of treat is to prevent the cycle from occurring.
As many pet owners have seen, recently preventatives have taken over social media because of side affects. Side affects from preventatives are actually very uncommon, and when they do happen it is very select cases. So please consult your veterinarian before discontinuing any preventatives, Your veterinarian can also discuss which preventatives would be best for you and your pets lifestyle. Preventatives are a very important for your pet's health and the best form of medication! So stay safe and healthy out there!
-Jordyn, Ann, and The Misfits
P.S. Before finishing this article we found a tick on Athena....
-PetMD: "Why Heartworm Prevention is More Important Then You Think." By Jennifer Kyamme, DVM
-PetMD: " Why You Need to Stay Current on Flea, Tick, and Heartworm Prevention." By: Kate Nelson, DVM
-VCA: "Preventive Health Care Guidelines for Dogs" By: Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM
-Wag!: "Intestinal Parasites in Dogs" Reviews by: Michele K, DVM
-American Heartworm Society: "Heartworm in Dogs"
-PetMD: "Treating Heartworms in Dogs" By Jennifer Coates, DVM