With the flea and tick season fast approaching, Tim Falk gets expert advice on how to keep your dog free from the clutches of these nasty pests.
When it comes to the health of our four-legged friends, fleas and ticks are the bane of every dog owner’s existence. But with the right attitude towards prevention and pet care, you can help your pooch stay entirely pest-free.
Beyond the obvious itching and scratching, many of us are unaware of the threat that fleas pose to our dogs. These wingless, bloodsucking insects can also cause anaemia, allergies and even transmit tapeworms. With this in mind, flea prevention for dogs is especially important.
Dr James Ross from the Barracks Vet Surgery in Mosman says that fleas love the Australian climate, especially during the summer months. “Eggs and larvae like warm, damp places in the bush or garden. Once the adult hatches from the cocoon it needs to find a host (a dog, cat, possum etc) for a blood meal. It is attracted to and jumps onto the passing animal, before dropping up to 50 eggs per day back into the environment,” he says.
Repeated scratching, especially around the rump area, is a telltale sign of a flea infestation. But a sure-fire way to check for fleas is to sweep a fine toothcomb through the hair on your dog’s back, says Dr Margie Roser, senior emergency and critical care vet at Canberra Veterinary Hospital.
“This may reveal fleas caught in the comb or evidence that there are fleas around, indicated by the presence of ‘flea dirt’. Flea dirt consists of small black flecks that look like dirt. However, when put on a white tissue with some water, it becomes red like dried blood. That is because flea dirt is just that – dried blood in the form of flea faeces,” Dr Roser explains.
It’s important to remember that even healthy, well cared-for dogs can be affected by these nasty critters. Fleas live in our environment and can get carried into our yards by wildlife or picked up on social outings like trips to the park and Obedience classes.
“It doesn’t mean you are a bad owner or your house is dirty if your dog gets fleas, but it is important to tackle them as soon as you spot them so it doesn’t turn into a problem,” Dr Roser says.
When it comes to choosing the right flea treatment for your pet, the range of options available can be downright confusing. Dr Ross says the most effective treatment products come from your vet, not your local supermarket.
“There are so many options, and many overlap in treating mites, ticks or worms, so it’s best to ask at your local vet for advice,” he says.
This sentiment is echoed by Dr Roser, who points out that tablets, spot-on treatments and sprays are typically more effective than flea collars, powders and baths. It’s important that you continue prevention year-round, as there can be eggs and larvae in the environment that are just waiting to hatch in the future and, if your dog is not protected, there will be a re-infestation.
“Flea populations can be sensitive to different products in different areas. Your local vet will know which are the most effective in your area,” Dr Roser says.
When 11-year-old Labrador Ruby started showing signs of being unwell, her owner Meredith Marshall knew something was very wrong. “Ruby was very slow getting up off the ground and her back legs were wobbly. The major sign for us was when her bark became high-pitched as this can be a sign that venom from a paralysis tick is shutting the muscles down around a dog’s lungs,” Marshall says.
A thorough checking over revealed Marshall’s worst fear – a paralysis tick near Ruby’s throat. Ruby was immediately rushed to the vet where anti-venom was administered, saving her life.
Though it took Ruby three weeks to recover her full strength, not all dogs that have a brush with a paralysis tick are so lucky. There are other types of tick in Australia – the brown dog tick and the bush tick – but it’s the paralysis tick that poses the biggest danger to our furry friends.
Known scientifically as Ixodes holocyclus, the paralysis tick causes ascending flaccid paralysis in dogs. This can lead to an inability to walk, inability to swallow and protect the airways, eventual respiratory paralysis and then death. Paralysis ticks can also have a direct effect on the heart, causing heart failure. Without treatment, susceptible dogs will die.
Ticks are present all year round in coastal regions along the entire east coast of Australia. “They are particularly potent in spring and early summer when the female ticks are most active,” Dr Roser says. They are mostly found in the bush but can easily make it into suburban areas.
“Ticks can travel in mulch, on clothing and in cars from the coast to inland regions,” Dr Roser explains. “They can then go on to infect dogs, so just because your dog didn’t go to the coast it doesn’t mean it can’t get a paralysis tick.”
“Symptoms include lethargy, lack of power in the back legs and inability to jump, vomiting and/or a strange cough,”
Dr Ross says. “Although the tick may already have dropped off, you should have a thorough look, with 90 per cent of ticks found from the shoulder line forward.”
It’s important to feel all over the dog’s skin, in every crevice, between toes and inside ears, searching for a hard scab or pinhead. If this is a tick, remove it immediately and bring the tick and the dog straight to the vet. Paralysis ticks tend to be a light grey metallic colour with all the legs located up near the mouth parts.
As for actually removing the tick, Dr Roser says there is no special way to do it. “You can use tweezers, your fingers or a specially designed tick remover available at vets and pet shops,” she explains.
The most important thing is to keep the dog calm, as stress increases the effects of the toxin.
Just as with any other medical condition, prevention is vital. “Unfortunately, no single product is 100 per cent effective at preventing tick infestation. Regardless of this, all dogs should have some type of tick prevention treatment,” Dr Roser says.
“Ensure that you follow the instructions very carefully when applying tick prevention as they can easily become ineffective if all the correct steps have not been taken.”
Above all, the most effective method of tick prevention is checking your dog daily and removing any ticks as soon as you find them.
To eliminate fleas, you need to treat more than just your dog – you need to treat its environment as well. Treating only your dog can lead to a frustratingly persistent infestation.
Dr Roser offers some handy tips:
If these steps don’t work, it might be time to get an exterminator in.