Little Pests: Fleas, Ticks, and Heart Worm
By Dr. Annette Richmond, DVM
Here on the central coast of California, most dog guardians have had experience with fleas on their dogs. The flea life cycle includes the egg, the larva, the pupa in the cocoon and then the emerging adult flea. A cocoon can survive up to one year in the correct environment, waiting for the appropriate time to hatch. The adult flea comes out of its cocoon only when a host is available, which accounts for the phenomenon of a house standing empty for a long time and shortly after a new tenant enters, they experience a flea infestation. As soon as the fleas emerge from the cocoon, they are ready for their first blood meal, and a female flea will lay eggs within 24-48 hours after a meal. They can lay up to 60 eggs per day.
The most common medical problem related to fleas is a flea-allergy dermatitis, resulting in intense itchiness, inflamed skin, and skin infections. Fleas can cause tapeworm infestations in dogs and cats if the flea is ingested, which occurs during self-grooming. Also, severe anemia can occur due to a serious flea infestation and even cause death in very small, young, or seriously ill dogs and cats.
Frequently, animals have adverse reactions to the topical flea treatments available, including lethargy, vomiting, poor appetite, and local skin reactions like inflammation or hair falling out. Many of the topical products have warning labels that state “hazardous to domestic animals” and for “external use only.” Of course, animals do groom themselves and each other, and therefore these products can be ingested!
There are natural alternatives for flea prevention instead of monthly administration of strong chemicals. Consider the following:
- Regular combing or brushing. Use a flea comb against the direction of hair growth.
- Frequent baths. Once weekly is fine with shampoo that doesn’t dry out the skin and contains essential oils like cedar, eucalyptus, neem, or lavender. Consult with a veterinarian about safety.
- Regular vacuuming or steam cleaning of carpets. Throw out the vacuum bag as the fleas can creep back out.
- Frequent washing of bedding in hot water.
- Regular topical treatments with essential oils. Consult with a veterinarian for a safe oil blend.
- Treatments with diatomaceous earth, both on the animal and on bedding, furniture, and carpet.
Our area has a high level of tick distribution of several tick species, including the deer tick, which carries Lyme disease, and the brown dog tick, which carries ehrlichiosis and babesiosis. These diseases express themselves through many different signs in dogs, including: joint pain, fever, lethargy, poor appetite, and general malaise. Similar prevention is used for ticks as was stated above for fleas.
The most important prevention is thorough examination to check for attached or unattached ticks and removing them. A drop of alcohol or lavender oil on an attached tick will help in the removal process. The tick can then be twisted out using fingers or gently with a pair of tweezers. The goal is to remove the head with the body, but if it is deeply imbedded the head may stay under the skin. The spot may stay inflamed for several weeks and should be cleansed daily to prevent a skin infection. In general, this area heals without any problems.
Luckily, the central coast of California has one of the lowest incidences of heartworm disease in the country, as stated by the American Heartworm Society. The southeastern area of the USA has the highest incidence. Areas of risk are important to be aware of if you plan to travel with your dog.
Heartworms are transmitted by the mosquito when it takes a blood meal from an infected dog. The heartworm completes a part of its lifecycle in the mosquito and is then ready to be transmitted into the bloodstream of the next dog that the mosquito bites. The heartworm larva takes approximately six months to mature as it migrates through the bloodstream to arrive in its final destination, the dog’s heart. A dog could end up with a heart full of worms, resulting in a fatal condition.
Traditionally, heartworm prevention is made up of two parts: blood testing dogs annually and administering a monthly chemical. Caution must be used when giving dogs these chemicals as some have adverse reactions. The herding breeds, including Collies, Australian Shepherds, Old English Sheepdogs, Shelties, and mixes of these breeds can have severe neurologic problems from one of the chemicals called ivermectin. They require an alternate type of heartworm prevention.
A more natural prevention program relies on blood testing the animal every six months and using an herbal remedy to kill the heartworm larvae. This process is proactive in identifying an infestation early and reduces the amount of chemicals the dog is ingesting.
By using these natural remedies for fleas, ticks, and heartworms, we can spare our beloved animals from the adverse effects of many strong chemicals, as well as reduce the amount of pesticides we are putting on our precious earth.
Dr. Annette Richmond is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and a Certified Physical Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner. Specializing in musculoskeletal disorders, she uses natural remedies and physical rehabilitation including hydrotherapy in an underwater treadmill, acupuncture, joint manipulation, therapeutic laser, massage, essential oils, and specific exercises to keep canines strong and feeling well. Dr. Richmond also offers casting and fitting for high-quality braces for the knee. Natural Veterinary Therapy is located at 510 Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove. 831-655-0501.