Written by Libby Holman, DVM
Summer in the Northeast! Swimming at the beach, backyard barbecues, and long walks in the woods with your four-legged friend. Weekend summer outings with your dog can make you feel like you don’t have a care in the world!
However, in the midst of all of the summertime excitement you may have forgotten about the other creatures that love this time of year – ticks, fleas, and mosquitos. These summer pests will seek you and your pets out just about anywhere outdoors by scent, sight, body heat, and carbon dioxide sensing, then will attach, bite, or otherwise prey on their host whilst sometimes transmitting diseases. The CDC says diseases from fleas, tick, and mosquitos has tripled in the last 10 years alone. But there is something you can do about it: preventatives, preventatives, preventatives!
Heartworm is a parasite that is transmitted from mosquitoes to dogs. Once a heartworm is transmitted into a dog, it matures into an adult, mates, and produces offspring and if untreated it can lead to many heart worms living inside your dog! Ick!
Heartworm disease causes lasting damage to the heart, lungs, and arteries, and can affect the health and quality of life of dogs long after the parasites are gone. Treatment is expensive and involves several months of medications, injections, and hospitalization days, so prevention is by far the best option.
It’s very important for dogs and cats (especially outdoor) to stay on heartworm prevention year-round since mosquitoes can be active even in winter months. Most preventatives involve an oral chewable medication given once per month, but there are also some topical heartworm preventatives on the market as well.
Flea & Tick Prevention
There are many products on the market that effectively prevent fleas. In the southeastern US, where resistance to flea preventatives is a significant problem, the choice of flea preventative is very important. However, in this area we have a much lower flea burden (due to the fact that fleas die in the winter with a hard frost). Therefore, any product labeled as effective against fleas is likely sufficient.
In New England our biggest enemy in the fight against external parasites is undoubtedly the tick. Ticks can bite and attach to dogs, cats, and other pets and can cause a variety of problems ranging from Lyme disease to less well-known diseases such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or Anaplasmosis.
Each of these can negatively impact our furry friends, causing significant morbidity and stress. The transmission of these diseases requires that a tick bites and is attached to the dog for a period of time – 12-24 hours for lyme disease, but as few as 6-10 hours for diseases such as anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis. While there are tons of products out there licensed to kill ticks, it is important to find a product with a high efficacy and fast tick kill time, as the number of ticks carrying disease in this area is so high.
Topical Flea & Tick Preventatives
The traditional option for flea and tick preventatives has been the topical monthly spot-on product. These are liquids that are applied to the skin between the shoulder blades once a month. The products are fat soluble, stored in the oil glands of the skin, and wick from one hair follicle to the next to provide whole-body protection. Many topical products are highly effective, with less than a 4-hour tick kill time and even the ability to repel ticks and mosquitoes before they bite. At Bulger we recommend Parastar Plus due to its repellency, quick tick kill time, waterproof nature, and small volume of administration. It is important to note, however, that many of the topical products (including Parastar) are toxic to cats if ingested or if the cat grooms a dog who recently had the preventative applied to its skin.
Flea & Tick Collars
Flea and tick collars have become increasingly popular over the past few years. The technology has advanced significantly so that they no longer have a chalky, chemical feel. They are the most economical option for tick prevention, at an approximate cost of $7-8/month compared with $15-20 per month for topical or oral products. In addition, they are quite safe. Products such as Seresto are even marketed as safe for cats. The only downside is that these collars can be quite toxic if ingested. As a result, they are not recommended for dogs that spend a lot of time wrestling with other dogs, chewing on each others’ necks, etc. Additionally, many daycare facilities will not allow pets to wear them. They do have to be worn continuously to be effective.
Oral Flea & Tick Preventatives
Finally, in the past 3-5 years a number of oral/systemic products have come onto the market. Bravecto, Simparica, and Nexgard all boast excellent efficacy and quick tick kill time. They are given monthly, like a heartworm preventative, or every 3 months in the case of Bravecto. They tend to be quite effective and have a similar price point to the topical products. The downside is that the chewable systemic products do not have any repellent activity as the tick has to bite to ingest the medication.
What About All Those Chemicals?
Many of my clients hesitate to put their pets on a flea and tick preventative because they fear applying chemicals to their pet may cause harm. While I agree that I’d love to have an all-natural, completely safe product that was effective, this unfortunately has not been accomplished. All-natural products using garlic, citronella, or essential oils are unfortunately not effective and may even be harmful, and are not recommended.
Keeping Your Pet Protected Year-Round
Whichever family of products you choose, the most important part is that your pet should be on a preventative year-round. This has become even more critical during the past few years as we have had some incredibly mild days in the winter. Ticks don’t know what month it is – they don’t die when frost comes. Instead, they are hiding under the snow and leaf litter. When it is 60 degrees in February the ticks come out just as they would in April! Many people assume that if they have their pet on preventatives during the summer months they will be fine. Unfortunately, however, the shoulder seasons (April/May and October/Nov) tend to be the time of year when most tick diseases are spread – and most often they are spread by the immature stages of ticks that can be as small as a poppy seed! Don’t assume that you will see these tiny critters in time to remove them yourself.
It only takes one tick bite to cause significant disease. Do your best friend a favor this summer, and don’t leave them unprotected!