June 16, 2023 | General
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:
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.
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:
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: