Remember as a kid getting checked for lice in school? Am I dating myself? Do they still do that? School nurses, parent volunteers and those little wooden sticks that would riffle through your hair to check for little critters. I never had lice as a child, but from what I hear it’s a pain to deal with – a regimen of shampoo, combing and picking out nits (the eggs) by hand for three weeks! And it’s not just the hair – you’d have to wash clothes, bedding and blankets just in case they had jumped onto other breading grounds in your home. The silver lining here is that pets cannot catch lice (phew!). My head is itching just writing about this…
Unfortunately, they can catch more dangerous and pesky bugs like fleas and ticks. Luckily our old faithful never had ticks or fleas. We had him on Sentinel every season. When it happens to your pooch it’s not just an inconvenience, it’s a serious health risk that can affect you as a pet parent and your family as well.
Fleas, another itch inducer, are tiny black parasites that live off of their host’s blood. They are jumpers, not flyers, and are well adapted to be able to live on furry or feathery creatures. There are different types of fleas, some with particular tastes for specific hosts, such as Xenopsylla cheopis which clung onto the black rat and in turn caused the bubonic plague (this special little guy will always have a place in our history books and our nightmares). This relationship is a perfect example of what epidemiologist call vectors – an agent that carries and transmits a pathogen (bug) to another organism – like how mosquitos carry malaria. Fleas have a very impressive resume of diseases they can spread. Because they like warm blooded animals, humans, dogs and cats are primo candidates for fleas to jump on and get cozy.
The flea life cycle goes egg, larva, pupa and adult. Sound familiar? This ain’t no butterfly. Eggs are laid on the host or may fall to the ground. That’s why if your furry friend lies on the ground to rest, the eggs may get on their fur. When eggs emerge into larva, they feed off of organic material. They avoid sunlight and like dark humid places such as cracks, crevices, under carpets and bedding. Once in the pupa stage they need three elements to emerge (1) vibration (including sound), (2) a warm body and (3) carbon dioxide (all of which they can get from your dog’s warm body and breath (CO2) while panting (vibration)). Lastly, if there are fleas in the area already, then, the more the merrier. They have a “come join the party” policy. As an adult, all they need is that first sweet taste of blood and they are back in business to start reproducing all over again. This whole cycle can take 16 days.
Now that we know what these nasty critters are all about, we can interrupt the cycle and prevent an infestation. In Toronto and Southern Ontario, this life cycle starts in April-May but don’t reach the danger zone until August and lasts until October –November. It’s obvious that if you’re in a less than desirable environment that fleas can reign supreme. But it’s harder to swallow when you live in nice clean suburbia, or the concrete jungle. Be wary. Prevention is key and this is how you can do it; just follow the golden rules:
- Remove fleas from the indoor environment.
- Vacuum everything – floors, drapes, dog bedding and furniture corners
- Use a product that will kill adult fleas such as Nylar or methoprene which can be found as carpet powders, foggers or sprays
- Wash your pets bedding (and surrounding area) once a week with adulticide and insect growth regulator
- Clean everywhere your dog spends time (including the car!)
- Remove fleas from the outdoor environment.
- Fleas like warm, damp, dark environments and feed off of organic material so keep your pooch out of these backyard areas. Also watch out for other backyard animals as they can carry fleas too like raccoons and chipmunks.
So despite your diligence, your furry companion got fleas anyway. Time to go on the offensive and treat! There are a variety of solutions, but you must be patient. Much like lice, it’s going to take a while to kill off all those buggers because of the different stages in the life cycle the flea is in. This can take up to six months or more, so hang in there! Solutions include sprays, dips, shampoos, collars, oral and injectable products and flea combs. Consult your veterinarian for advice on which solution is best for your four legged companion.
Once again, prevention is the key. Adulticides (solutions that kill adult fleas) are the best for this. Repellants, insecticides, and regular use of insect growth regulator can help in preventing a flea disaster in indoor and outdoor environments.
Ticks, another blood sucking parasite, are very similar to fleas in that that enjoy warm, moist environments, have a similar life cycle and are vectors that attach themselves to other animals and spread disease. These include relapsing fever, tularemia, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, anaplasmosis and last but not least, Lyme disease.
In Lyme disease, following the tick bite, the infection spreads to the joints, heart, nervous system and skin sites distal to the bite via the bloodstream. It’s not always easy to catch or diagnose, so if left untreated, it can stay in the body for months or even, years. Usually a bulls eye rash is a dead giveaway that you’ve got a love bite, but don’t think you are in the clear if one doesn’t show up. 20-50% of people do not develop a rash, but they may get severe arthritic joint pain and swelling in the knees and neurological problems that can last for months to years, according to Toronto Public Health. Scarborough veterinarian Dr. Clayton Greenway says Lyme disease is on the rise thanks to climate change and urban sprawl and ticks are hanging around all year long. This is why it is important to keep on the look out not only for your pet but yourself as well.
How to be Aware
A brisk walk or an afternoon meander is not as innocent as you may think, especially during tick season. When you go for walks watch out for low hanging branches, tall grass and wooded areas. Back from your walk? Time to check the fur for those unwanted pesky pests. Don’t just check your pup – everyone gets a strip search from top to bottom. If caught early, you can remove them carefully with a pair of tweezers. It takes 24 hours for the disease to be spread from the tick to the host, so early detection is important. Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics, but it becomes more difficult to treat as time passes. Think you got a tick bite but are far away from a hospital? Take a picture of the rash if you’ve got one. It can help the doc diagnose it later.
Lyme disease is very serious and is on the rise. Be aware and most importantly, be diligent! Keep yourselves and your pets healthy this summer!