Here's how to keep fleas, ticks and other pests from bugging your dogs and cats this summer.
Animals thrive during the warm, active and social summer months. Unfortunately, so do the pests that can affect their health. The good news? There are many preventive options, which means you can customize a safe and effective plan for your animal.
"Pest control can involve a combination of approaches based on the pet, lifestyle of the pet and owner, and where the pet lives," says Melinda Miller, hospital director of Smith Ridge Veterinary Center in South Salem, N.Y. She advises owners to use natural solutions whenever possible.
"Chemicals were the easy prevention and treatment default for years, but they can take a toll on a pet's health," she says.
Feeding your cats and dogs well is one of the top things you can do to keep bugs at bay.
"Healthy animals can repel fleas and ticks naturally," Miller says, adding that pets that eat balanced, high-quality diets seldom have pest problems. Ultra-premium canned food or a balanced home-cooked diet are among the best choices. (Raw food diets are also gaining in popularity, but some vets don't recommend them, due to the potential for parasites.) Beyond that, follow these tips, and make sure to consult your veterinarian for more specific advice on prevention and for treatment.
Problem: Fleas and ticks
Fleas can hitch a ride indoors on your pet and make a home in your carpets, baseboards and bedding (though fleas feed off a pet's blood, most don't live on their bodies).
As for ticks, they climb tall grass and foliage. So when animals or humans walk by, ticks can crawl onto their skin and embed themselves. For many pets, flea bites cause only slight skin irritation. Other animals have a more severe reaction, which can include hair loss, lesions and ulcers. A serious infestation can trigger anemia, especially in puppies and kittens.
Fleas may also carry infectious diseases and parasites such as tapeworm. Ticks can transmit Lyme disease; Rocky Mountain spotted fever (rare in cats); and Ehrlichiosis, a disease that can attack white blood cells, the spleen, the liver, lymph nodes and bone marrow.
Prevention: For flea control, vacuum daily (dispose of the vacuum bag or debris outside), wash pet bedding in hot water and keep grass short. Consider adding beneficial nematodes (microscopic worms that feed on young fleas) to your yard. You can also sprinkle diatomaceous earth — a natural substance that causes fleas and ticks to dehydrate and die — indoors and out. Look for it at pet stores.
For fleas, a repellent spray that's made from herbal or food-based ingredients is one of the safest methods of direct intervention; Quantum Herbal Spray is one you can try. Contact-kill sprays and shampoos aim to banish fleas (some target ticks, too), but they require multiple applications, and many are chemically based.
The most effective treatments are chemical insecticides, which you apply periodically to an animal's skin.
"These work against all life stages of fleas and ticks, but they're also the most toxic," says veterinarian Kenneth Fischer of Hillsdale Animal Hospital in Hillsdale, N.J. "Only use the minimum to get the job done."
If you find a tick, use tweezers to grab the head where it entered the skin (don't squeeze the body), and pull it out gently but firmly. Then drown it in rubbing alcohol.
Itchy bites aren't the issue for pets. Dogs and outdoor cats can get heartworms from an infected mosquito, resulting in heartworm disease. The serious condition affects a pet's heart, lungs and circulatory system.
Prevention: Have your pets tested annually for heartworms, reduce their exposure to mosquitoes and use a monthly preventive as advised by your veterinarian.
"There is no proven natural preventative, and monthly oral preventatives are quite safe," Fischer says.
Problem: Ear mites
If your pet is scratching near its ears or shaking its head, these external parasites may be the culprit. Another indicator: An animal's ear canal may look like it's full of coffee grounds (it's debris from the mites). This very contagious pest is easily passed from one animal to another in a household (but not to humans). If left untreated, mites can damage the canal and the eardrum and cause permanent hearing loss.
Prevention: Don't introduce a new pet to your household without having her checked for ear mites by a vet. And if one pet in your home does get them, have her treated and any other pets examined right away.