Coping With Flea and Tick Season — and Other Pet Health Issues

The dog days of summer are also flea and tick season. Here's a little advice from us to help you get your pets through it.
By Emily Miller
August/September 1991
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Tiny flea eggs can hide anywhere.
SYD GREENBERG
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The dogs days of summer are upon us. In Vermont, we are getting ready for the Champlain Valley Fair, zucchinis are the size of baseball bats, prize sheep and pigs are getting their annual (though unwanted) bath, and nights are a bit cooler. But for all the outward placidity of these last summer days, it's a battleground in the jungle of your pet's fur. In most areas of the country, late summer is the height of the flea and tick season.

It's important to remember that as your animal begins to spend more time inside, so do their unwanted friends. And as the fall draws nearer, the fleas and ticks on Duke's or Cleo's back are going to bug you; they'll want to nest in your sofa, your bed, or your children's beds. They will make a home everywhere that your pet does after a long day of ball-chasing or mousing.

Unfortunately, really successful parasite prevention starts around tax day, but it's never too late to take Fido in hand and get a grip on what could be a late-summer infestation. But before you start, sit back for a minute or two, listen to the crickets, drink a glass of lemonade, and feel a few rays of the sun filter through the maple trees to your feet. After all, summer just never lasts long enough.

Q: I'm very cautious about exposing my children to Lyme disease, but my dog just bounds into danger areas. What can I do? 

A: You're right to worry about keeping your children from bounding into danger areas. Deer ticks don't care who plays host to them and will hop onto a child just as readily as a dog.

As far as curtailing a possible infestation of your dog, there are definitely things you can do. Keeping pets and persons away from those "danger areas" (including deep woods; marshy, reedy areas; and very grassy fields) is a good start. Given that it is impossible to restrain the animal's activities, it's important to know how you can have the upper hand in tick control:

Grooming is very important. First, brush out your dog's hair. Once the animal is not tangled or matted and the bulk of the undercoat is gone, use as fine a comb as your animal will tolerate to remove any loose parasites as well as their eggs that may be clinging to the skin or hair.

Tick baths and powders can be very effective. However, if you have a hound that won't get out of the water (a retriever, poodle, or pointer), this may not be practical; all the tick-fighting chemicals will be washed off. Should you decide to go with a powder, ask your vet to recommend one. Bear in mind: These powders are highly toxic and you may want to reconsider if you have a dog with a delicate constitution or you have very young children.

Be responsible about the dog's environment. Keep his area indoors cleaned and vacuumed. Cedar bedding helps keep down the number of parasites indoors because fleas and ticks don't like the smell. If you have a bad infestation, you can spray the ground outside with an insecticide, and powder or bomb inside.

I believe strongly in the herbal alternative. Regrettably, this is a preventative measure, not a post-fact cleanup. Adding brewer's yeast and garlic to your dog's diet starting in the early spring changes his body smell and confuses parasites. Dotting herbal oils such as eucalyptus, cedar, or mint on your pet's ears, throat, hindquarters, and abdomen can help to make those very stupid parasites think your dog isn't one.

Finally, remember to protect your dog from Lyme disease with the newly available vaccine.

Q: My cat has been out all summer and is scratching. What should I look for to see if she has ticks or fleas? Is a flea collar a good idea? 

A: What's a good idea is a sort of weekly "physical" exam of your cat. Hold her in your arms and feel her spine, legs, abdomen, and chest for any lumps, bumps, or rashes. Pull her lips back and look at her teeth and gums for discoloration. Cat's usually hate this, but if you're really familiar with what your cat looks and feels like when she's healthy, you'll know a lot sooner when she's not.

Fleas will leave a dark, somewhat angular debris on the skin of a cat. Generally, if a cat has fleas, there will be some of this debris on the head and at the base of the ears, on the belly near the hind legs, and around the neck. Ticks are less common among cats, but can be present if the cat wanders in densely wooded areas. A tick looks like a little brown, black, or flesh-colored growth. If filled with blood, it looks like a bean. Remove carefully with tweezers by grasping the tick near where it has attached itself to your cat's skin. Ticks bury their heads in the animal, so remove carefully in order to get the whole bug. Once removed, wrap in tissue and flush down the toilet.

If your cat is scratching and you don't see any sign of parasites, call your vet. Depending on what's occurring on the skin (scaly red patches, hair loss, or circular raised patterns), your pet may be the victim of dermatitic mange, roundworm, or allergies.

At best, flea collars deter fleas from hopping on your cat. If your cat is already infested, you have to remove the fleas from his body and his living space before you think about prevention. Generally, this means a flea bath for the cat and his bedding, and a flea bomb for your house. Ask your vet to recommend one, because the bombs and shampoos available from vets are usually more effective than those sold over the counter.

Understand that one flea dip for your kitty may not be enough. Fleas are very tough, resilient critters and their eggs may be totally unharmed by the chemicals you bombard them with. Follow up with powders for your cat and his bedding. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of flea powder, however, so my cat receives the brewer's yeast and garlic mixture in his food the whole year round. I started with a little bit (about a pinch of each) last January and slowly added more until now when he blithely gobbles down half a teaspoon of yeast and a clove of chopped, fresh garlic every day. I can't say that we are entirely flea free, but at least he is never badly infested.

Flea collars are highly toxic—just read the directions on the back about how to dispose of the package. In terms of effectiveness, they may help deter fleas from entering the neck area, but that's about it. Given their limited benefit and extreme toxicity, I don't feel comfortable in recommending them.

Q: My older dog is panting a lot and it's not even that hot out. Can you explain why? 

A: As animals mature, many of the same problems associated with old age in humans occur in them. Your older dog may be panting more due to decreased lung capacity. Since panting is one of the two ways dog's release heat (the other is through the pads of their feet), your dog has to pant, or breathe more often to cool himself down.

Q: I always see dogs sheared for summer. Should I do that for my St. Bernard? 

A: No, absolutely not. Your dog's hair is very important to keeping her cool. It helps to insulate her from the heat as well as the cold. It is important to remove all the undercoat (dead, fluffy secondary hair produced by double-coated dogs like the St. Bernard).

If she won't let you do it, definitely bring her to the groomer's. Removal of the undercoat will prevent matting and allow the air to circulate freely to the skin, as well as allow the heat to escape her body. If you shear your dog, you run a risk of heat stroke as her body will be unaccustomed to the sun.

Q: There is a lot of barbed wire on my property and I'm scared my dog will cut herself on it. I can't keep her inside all day. What should I do? 

A: If it really concerns you, consider not letting the dog run freely without supervision. In the event that an accident does happen, first aid for dogs is not dissimilar to that for humans. Wash any cuts thoroughly with warm, soapy water. Use anti-bacterial ointment like Bacitracen. Cover the cut if needed, but it will heal more quickly if exposed to the open air. Check for signs of infection: redness, swelling, tenderness, discharge. Always bring your animal to her vet if you have any questions.

Q: My dog is constantly biting spots on his leg, especially after swimming. He's almost torn the fur away in parts and the area is red. What is bothering him? 

A: It sounds like your dog may have dermatitic "hot spots." When a dog's skin is irritated, or if he is bored, he may "worry" the area of irritation raw with little chewing motions. It can get very red and even become infected.

Hot spots can be brought on by allergies to bug bites, by irritation caused by plants, or from the matting of a wet undercoat, which then shrinks and rubs against the skin. If your dog has constant skin problems, get him checked for allergies. It's not just human beings who get allergic reactions to airborne agents like mold, leaves, even grass. If skin irritation is constant, he might have a food allergy; if it is seasonal, possibly an airborne allergy. If your dog has long or double-coated hair, like a St. Bernard or a huskie, check to be sure that all his undercoat is removed and he has no mats.

The easiest solution to hot spots is an over-the-counter antibacterial called "Sulfadene." It's topical and can be applied several times a day. Again, if your dog is chronically affected or if the "hot spot" becomes infected, see his vet.

Q: My kids run our spaniel around all day in the summer. He chases them out in the field for hours and I'm worried he's going to overheat. 

A: It's been known to happen. I know of owners happily playing frisbee with their retrievers, only to see them fall at their feet, dazed and unresponsive. It is vital to hydrate your animal.

Dogs don't sweat. They maintain their body temperature only through panting and releasing heat from the pads of their feet. They need water to cool the inside of their body down. To test for dehydration, grab a handful of skin at the scruff of your dog's neck, then release it. It should spring back into place. If the fold of skin stays and sort of oozes back into place, your dog needs water. Try it when you know your dog is fully hydrated to familiarize yourself.

Tell your kids to bring a bike bottle full of water for your dog and for them. Bike bottles are ideal because you can squirt water directly into the dog's mouth so you don't need to carry anything for him to drink out of. In fact, all excursions with Rover should include a container of water. It gets hot for hounds too, and they can't ask you to buy them a Coke.

Q: My husband insists on bringing the dog with him in the car, even when we run errands for stretches. Is this safe? 

A: A good answer to this question has to have two parts: First, the safety of your dog when the car is moving, and second, when it's not.

Many dogs are harmed by not being restrained while riding in cars. I know dogs love to ride with their heads out of the window. However, there are countless cases of dogs being injured while engaged in this activity. Restraining your dog in the back seat may be as simple as installing a pet gate. Also, special seats that buckle into seat belts are available for small dogs.

Dogs love to ride in the back of pickups, but please, put him in a crate and secure the crate tightly to the truck. Keeping your dog secure in the car can help you be a safer driver and keep your "best friend" from being another accident statistic.

When running errands, try to take your dog with you. You'd be surprised how many understanding business people (and fellow pet lovers) allow dogs. It never hurts to ask. If bringing your dog is impossible, remember that the interior of a car can easily reach 110°F in less than half an hour. Park in the shade and put a sun visor in the windshields. If your car is equipped with blinds for toddlers, pull those down as well. Crack the windows for ventilation and leave plenty of water.

Finally, if at any time you question whether or not it's too hot to bring your dog, don't.


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