Warm winter means more pests for pets

Like many Beachers I had no complaints at all about this past winter. It came as a welcome break from the usual grind of shoveling and scraping, stuffing children into snow suits and braving the biting winds along the beach off-leash zone. It’s possible though, for our pets anyway, that there may be a bit of a price to pay for such a mild winter.

Spring, for dog and cat owners, is the time when we have to start considering protecting our pets from certain parasites. Fleas, ticks and mosquitoes are all on the list of pests that can cause significant illness in our pets, and they all start to emerge as the days start to warm.

The most commonly used monthly anti-parasite products provide protection for some or all of heartworm, fleas and ticks.  Some are oral and some topical, applied to the skin. These products are typically packaged with six doses per box, with each dose lasting for one month. For the drug manufacturers it seems to make sense to simply consider the southern half of North America as needing two boxes per pet, as in 12 doses for a full year, and the northern half needing one box, or six doses for half the year.

The problem is that in this area we are in a bit of an in-between zone, and this spring, coming early and following such a mild winter, may very well highlight this fact. The typical start date that has been recommended for preventative products is June 1. The reason is that a dose given on that date would protect a dog from developing heartworm, even if they were infected in late April or May, and starting in June means that a package of six doses will last into the fall, when the fleas are at their worst.

Unfortunately what this means is that our pets are vulnerable to fleas and ticks for much of April and May. This is somewhat true every year, and will be especially true this year. Given that fleas and, now it seems, ticks are a far more frequently encountered threat than heartworm, it seems to make more sense that they should be the focus of our preventive timing.

Ticks do not do well in the very warm, dryer months in mid-summer but have a population bloom in the spring and fall when conditions are most favorable for them. They also can survive fairly well over winter if it is mild. I saw more ticks on dogs that had never left the city last year than ever before, and of greater concern, I have seen almost that many again this year already.

Tick-borne illness is of huge concern in certain parts of the U.S., but remains relatively rare here. It is certainly possible, if not likely, that as the tick population increases the incidence of serious tick-borne illnesses such as anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis and other diseases capable of infecting humans will also increase.

Tick prevention often requires a multi-pronged approach. The broad spectrum topical products are a very effective first line, but if you are travelling to high risk areas (northeastern U.S., Prince Edward County and Kingston to name a few) it is probably worth doubling up with another more potent preventive. Ask you vet for advice on this matter.

One of the best things you can do to prevent tick problems is to thoroughly inspect your dog after a walk and physically remove any ticks manually. This is a standard part of dog care in the areas that have to deal with the threat of ticks every day. The best way to safely remove a tick is to use a ‘tick puller’ (we give these away to anyone who needs one) or tweezers to grasp the head close to the pet’s skin and pull in an even steady motion without twisting or jerking.

Unlike ticks, fleas are already a very well established parasite in our area, and have been forever. Fleas don’t have a spring bloom like ticks. Each spring, the relatively small population that survived the winter in homes and on pets and wildlife starts to reproduce. They do this very well and the population grows exponentially through the summer to peak in the fall. We see the majority of flea problems in the late summer and fall.

Now is the time to talk to your vet about flea and tick prevention. The ticks are out already, and cases of cats and dogs already infested with fleas are starting to appear. We advise our clients not to wait until the start of ‘heartworm season’ to protect their pets against fleas and ticks, and provide eight months of protection for our patients to start in April. The preventive products are very easy to use, very safe and will protect your pets from the discomfort and disease that these summer pests can inflict. Don’t let a gentle winter ruin your pets summer!

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