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Preventive Pest Control

With lots of warm days and long outdoor romps ahead, pet owners need to be extra-vigilant about keeping harmful pests at bay. Here’s how to tell fleas and ticks (and more) to “bug off!”

Photography by: Jun Cen

by Mary Kate Frank


As I dug for a leash in my “doggie junk drawer” recently, I unearthed a packet of heartworm pills. When had I last given one to my pup, Clyde? Two weeks ago? Six?


Even engaged pet owners (like me) skip doses of preventive parasite medications now and then— we forget, balk at the high cost, or assume they’re only needed in certain months or regions. And yet “the threat is year-round, no matter where you live,” says Susan Little, a vet and president of the Companion Animal Parasite Council. Missed doses can lead to serious diseases, she says. “So using preventives before you see parasites is key.”


Warding Off Worms

There are several types of worms, and they spread in many different ways. Dogs can get roundworm and whipworm by ingesting soil containing the eggs or larvae. Cats can contract them through infected rodents and birds. Heartworm, carried by infected mosquitoes (they deposit larvae on the skin, which then enter your pet through the bite wound), is especially life-threatening. Left untreated, it can cause respiratory disease in cats and lung problems and heart failure in dogs.


Most preventive medications tackle a variety of worms, but one focuses only on heartworm. (Ask your vet for the best option.) The majority are monthly tablets or topical treatments, or, for dogs, twice-yearly injectables. “If your pet tends to spit pills out, a topical may be better,” says Stephen Jones, a vet and president of the American Heartworm Society. If you tend to forget doses, a shot at the vet’s office makes sense. And because drugs aren’t foolproof (say, your pet vomits it out or rubs it off), also test annually for heartworm.


Escaping Fleas and Ticks

Though usually a mere nuisance, fleas can trigger allergic dermatitis and transmit parasites and diseases (such as tapeworm and cat scratch disease). Ticks—which can be found in your own backyard, not just the woods—are more concerning. The most common tick-borne diseases are Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis, and anaplasmosis. Symptoms for these include pain in the joints or lameness, loss of appetite, fever, and depression; dogs with Lyme disease may also develop arthritis or kidney failure (the disease is not known in cats). Treating these illnesses can be costly, take months, and cause even more discomfort, so prevention is your best bet.


Many preventives attack both fleas and ticks. Monthly topicals begin repelling them right away; oral tablets, given monthly or quarterly, start killing fleas in a few hours but take as long as 12 to 24 hours to kill ticks (and are only available against ticks for cats). Check for fleas with a flea comb if your pet is scratching, but hunt for ticks after every outdoor excursion— around the eyes and ears, skin folds, belly, and anal area for dogs and cats, and on dogs between toes, too. Don’t rush; use your thumb to feel for bumps. Those extra minutes can save your pet’s life.


How to Remove a Tick