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We are fortunate in our part of the country. Our sunny, mostly dry weather reduces the incidence of harmful parasites. We don’t have nearly the problems that people in humid areas such as the Southeastern United States have to deal with. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to worry. We do see some parasites in our part of the world and many of them can cause serious illness in both pets and people. The following are some of the more common parasites that we all need to be concerned about.

Roundworms in general refer to a group of many different worm species that range in size from a millimeter to up to three feet long. Some of the more common roundworms in dogs and cats are Ascarids (usually just called roundworms) hookworms, and whipworms. Most adult roundworms live in the intestines of dogs and cats, but on their way to the intestines the larvae (young worms) can migrate undetected through other tissues, usually the muscles and lungs. The most common symptoms of roundworms in dogs and cats are diarrhea and weight loss. Dog and cat roundworms can infect people but since humans are not a natural host, the worms tend to get disoriented and lost. They often migrate to random areas causing problems not only in the intestines, but also in the lungs, skin, muscles and other organs, including the eyes (They can cause blindness, especially in children, and are often mistaken for cancer in the eye).

Heartworms are actually just another type of roundworm that lives in the heart rather than the intestine. Their presence can lead to heart failure and thromboembolic disease (blockage of the blood supply caused by blood clots or by the worms themselves). Heartworms are found mostly in dogs and more rarely in cats. In people they usually cause lung disease, but it also can affect other tissues such as the eye. Heartworm disease is rare, but present in this area.

Tapeworms are carried by fleas and prey species such as gophers and rabbits. They seldom cause serious disease unless they are present in very large numbers, but should not be ignored because they do rob your pet of nutrients and can irritate the intestinal system. You cannot get tapeworms from your pet. You would have to swallow an infected flea to become infected with the common dog and cat tapeworm. Tapeworm control requires a unique medication (praziquantel) that is not included in most of the other parasite treatments. The foundation of tapeworm control is good flea control.

Ticks are creepy but not deadly by themselves (most tick bites simply create a raised, irritated area that can last for 1 to 3 weeks). The problem with ticks is that they can carry many other debilitating and potentially deadly disease causing organisms and transmit them to your pet and to you. Some of the more common tick-borne diseases include Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Ehrlichiosis, Anaplasmosis and Tick Paralysis. You cannot get these diseases directly from your pet, but you may be at risk if your dog or cat puts you in contact with an infected tick that bites you.

Leptospirosis is an organism that is found in water, usually local ponds and streams. The leptospirosis organism attacks the kidneys and can cause rapid and severe kidney and liver disease. It is shed in the urine and you can get it if you come on contact with infected urine either on the ground or on the hair of your pet.

Clearly many of the common parasites in our pets can also cause potentially serious problems in humans. When it comes to parasites and you, your family and your pets, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The following recommendations to control parasites are taken the Companion Animal Parasite Council guidelines with some modifications for our area. The council advises:

A preventive physical examination every 6 to 12 months

A heartworm test yearly (every 3 years if regularly on heartworm preventative in this area) and a year round heartworm preventative.

A yearly test for tick-borne pathogens (we recommended this if your dog is ill after a tick bite or if it is regularly exposed to ticks). If your pet has no symptoms, a positive test does not necessarily mean your pet has the disease. It means your pet has been exposed to the disease (but may have been able to fight it off). When we have a positive test with no symptoms, we repeat the test in 1 month. If your pet has an active infection, the numbers will be higher.

A fecal test at least 4 times a year in puppies and kittens, 1 to 2 times a year in adults. (Here we do 1 to 2 fecal tests in puppies. In both puppies and adults, we do repeated tests if results are positive to make sure the parasites have been cleared).

Vaccination for Leptospirosis if your dog is exposed to untreated water. (These vaccines can cause temporary muscle soreness in some animals).

Year round broad spectrum parasite control. Many products exist that prevent heartworms, roundworms, fleas and ticks.

Regular and routine worming of kittens and puppies, starting at 2 weeks of age. (For the older puppy or kitten you adopted, we will begin parasite treatment as needed at your first veterinary visit).

Pregnant animals should be on a broad spectrum control product that is safe to use in pregnancy as some parasites can be transmitted to the fetus.

Most of these parasites are spread through the urine or feces of infected animals. Adopt healthy habits such as protecting garden areas from fecal contamination, picking up feces immediately on walks and from your yard, prevent roaming and predation, never handle feces or urine with your bare hands, wash hands immediately after incidental contact and properly dispose of waste according to municipal regulations.

Please join the Buellton Veterinary Clinic team in helping to create a parasite free zone for our pets and ourselves.