Bites, bumps and scratches, oh my!
Summer doesn’t just take a toll on pet owners, it’s also a buggy, somewhat bothersome time for our four-legged friends (no matter how much they love rolling in the grass and basking in the sun). They itch and scratch and can be left with worrisome symptoms after a bug bite goes awry.
So, we spoke with a NoVA veterinarian to find out her best tips on flea and tick prevention in the warmer months. Lisa Pinn McFadden, DVM, GDCVHM, cVSMT, cCOAC, CVA, CVFT, of Independent Hill Veterinary Clinic (also listed on our 2019 Best Veterinarians list) has been practicing veterinary medicine since the early 2000s, and specializes in emergency care, as well as Eastern-style practices that offer a more holistic approach to pet care. Highlights from our conversation are below.
What are some ways we can help our pets avoid tick bites?
Minimizing exposure to overgrown grassy areas and lots, daily tick checks and regular use of effective flea and tick prevention are a must to keep our pets free of tick-borne diseases.
Ticks live in heavily wooded and grassy areas. They climb up the tall grasses and plants and basically stand at the top with their arms waving back and forth in the air (like they are at a really cool tick rock concert) hoping a host walks by and they can grab onto them, like your pet, or you for that matter.
You can usually avoid a lot of exposure to ticks by avoiding the woods, but most of us enjoy a good nature hike now and then. Plus, we live in NoVA, which is pretty woodsy. So just be cautious and extra vigilant during your pet tick checks since we can’t let ticks prevent us from living our lives. Plus, my dog never listened to me when I say, “We are going for a hike … please stay only on the path.” We want dogs to be dogs and enjoy themselves, but as pet parents it is our responsibility to ensure they remain happy and healthy.
Are there any natural alternatives to prescribed medicine that work for tick prevention?
Hands down the best tick prevention is daily tick checks. Comb over your dog from nose to tail looking for ticks. If they are removed within 12 to 24 hours of attaching, you will prevent transmission of almost all known tick-borne diseases we see in dogs. That being said, it can be hard to find the nymphs, which can frequently transmit disease, and if you have a super hairy pup with dark fur it can be a major challenge.
Natural flea and tick options should, in my opinion, be used as an adjunct to prescription flea and tick prevention. There are some good non-prescription alternatives, but when it comes to tick-borne diseases you can never be too safe.
Here are the “natural” preventatives I like: Vetri Science Repel, which comes in a spray and wipe that can be used on cats and dogs, needs to be reapplied at least every three days and contains a low dose of essential oils; Neem oil, which is a topical cold-pressed seed oil that can help repel and kill mosquitoes, biting midges and fleas and can be easily added to pet shampoo for topical treatment, but it can cause GI issues if given too high of a concentrated dose; Diatemaceous Earth which is also a topical (made from crushed marine and fresh-water fossils) that can be applied daily and is helpful against fleas.
If my pet gets bit, what are the symptoms I should look for to determine if further medical attention is needed?
If you find a dead tick on your dog and your dog is on preventative medicine, then great! That means the preventative medicine did its job and killed the tick, hopefully before they had a chance to transmit disease. If the tick is alive and not engorged, then you likely found it before there was a chance to spread disease.
In both cases, make sure you remove the entire tick. Many people are afraid to leave the head. It is not that common to leave the head. Often the small black spot visible after the tick is removed in the center of the tick bite is dried blood, not the head. Unknowingly, owners frequently cause more trauma to the skin by trying to dig out the non-existent head instead of leaving it alone. Even if the head is there the body will eventually push it out. My suggestion is don’t dig around. Just call your veterinary hospital and have a professional examine the tick bite and remove any residual pieces if needed.
If the tick is alive and engorged there is a chance a tick-borne disease could have been transmitted. In this case, call your veterinarian for advice. Some veterinarians want to see the tick or at least a photo of it to know the type of tick since different ticks transmit different diseases. You may be instructed to bring your pet in for an exam or schedule an appointment for a blood test six to eight weeks after the bite. It takes about that long for the body to develop antibodies to the infectious bacteria. When we run tick blood tests, we are looking for the antibodies. So, if the test is performed too soon it may appear falsely negative.
Also, always monitor the site for signs of infection or allergic reaction. These include redness, swelling, pain, heat and/or discharge (generally yellow or bloody). If these are seen, call your veterinarian immediately.
How do we avoid fleas on our pets?
Regular flea prevention, given on time and according to the package instructions is the best prevention. There are a number of great topical and oral flea preventatives on the market. We are seeing some resistance to certain pesticides, but in general they are very effective.
Vacuuming or sweeping the house regularly, especially underneath the couch and beds, is recommended as well. Fleas jump off the pet to lay eggs. And they love dark, non-humid and temperate environments. Fleas can also live in the outside environment in areas with a large amount of wildlife. If the wildlife has a high flea burden, you (the pet owner) can also potentially carry them in your house on your clothing. So keep in mind, the fleas you see on your pet is only 5% of the problem. The remaining 95% of the issue are the larvae and eggs in your home.
When using preventative medicine on dogs, what should we avoid if we also have cats?
Cats are very sensitive to a class of drugs called pyrethrins. It can be very toxic, causing uncontrolled muscle spasms and twitching. Many topical flea and tick preventatives contain pyrethrins. They should be applied to dogs only. Dogs should be separated from cats for 24 to 48 hours after application until the product has fully dried. Cats sometimes like to rub up against and groom their canine counterparts, too, and while the medication is drying cats could accidentally ingest the drug. Some pet parents elect to avoid all topical flea and tick prevention for their dogs if they have cats as well. There are a number of oral flea and tick preventatives for dogs which are very effective. As long as the oral medication is not given to the cat accidentally there is no way the oral preventative can negatively affect the cat.
Other recommendations for protecting furry friends during the summer?
I highly recommend regular flea and tick prevention for your pets. I am an integrative practitioner, so I practice both holistic and traditional medicine. I weigh the pros and cons of everything I get my pets. Most oral and topical flea and tick preventatives are very safe. But remember, they are pesticides. And in my opinion, the low potential risk of ill effect is dramatically outweighed by the benefit of protecting my pets from many gross flea and tick-borne diseases. I also have a toddler at home who I want to protect against disease. By keeping my pets safe, I in turn keep my family safe.
For more from Lisa Pinn McFaddin, listen to her podcast Vetsplaining wherever you get your podcasts. Otherwise, you can find McFaddin at Independent Hill Veterinary Clinic and in weekly Facebook live videos about a wide range of veterinary topics pet owners are interested in.
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