What is a Parasite?
A parasite is an organism that makes its home on or in your pet then feeds on your four-legged friend to survive. Parasites can rob your pet of essential nutrients, cause irreversible organ damage, or in some cases lead to uncomfortable skin conditions or infections. So which parasites do you need to be aware of? Every geographical location has its own set of problematic parasites, so your vet is in the pet position to let you know which parasites are common in your location. That said, there are a number of parasites commonly seen in pets across North America.
Types of Parasites
Parasites are defined as organisms that live inside or on another organism - known as the host - and feed themselves off the host, often causing the host to experience a range of health issues.
Parasites fall into two main categories, those that are external (live on your pet's skin) and those that are internal and make their home within your pet's body and vital organs.
The Importance of Parasite Prevention
Most vets agree that parasites are far easier and often cheaper to prevent than to treat once a pet has been infected. Preventing parasites also protects your pet against having to deal with the uncomfortable and sometimes deadly health effects of parasites. When it comes to heartworm in particular, prevention is considered to be the best possible way to save your dog or cat's life (see more information on heartworm below)!
Below are some of the most common parasites seen in dogs and cats, the conditions caused by these parasites, and what you can do to protect your pet.
External Parasites Commonly Seen On US Pets
There are several parasites that can make their home on the skin or in the fur of your dog or cat. Fleas and ticks are two of the most common.
Fleas are an external parasite that depends upon a host animal for their survival, in this case, your cat or dog. Once these tiny parasites have made themselves at home on your pet they will begin to multiply at an astonishing rate. Some estimates calculate that for every adult flea you find on your pet, there may be 100 or more immature fleas hiding throughout their coat. Not only that, but if your pet has fleas there is a good chance that these parasites are also invading your home, hiding in carpets and soft furnishings.
Many dogs and cats are allergic to the proteins left behind when fleas bite, which causes the area of the bite to become intolerably itchy. When this happens pets often scratch and groom excessively leading to raw damaged patches of skin, fur loss, and in some cases infections. Additionally, fleas have an added danger in that infected fleas can also transmit tapeworms to your pet.
Ticks are external parasites that rely on 'hosts' for transportation and food. Ticks feed on the blood of their hosts, including humans and animals. A host is a person or animal that the tick lands on and begins feeding on.
Ticks are extremely common around the globe and many different species are found across North America. Each type of tick comes with serious risks to pet health and human health. Tick's saliva contains a variety of germs and bacteria which can be transmitted to the animals and people they prey on. These bacteria can lead the host to develop conditions such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Canine Bartonellosis, Anaplasmosis, Ehrlichiosis, alpha-gal allergy, or Lyme disease.
Internal Parasites Seen in US Dogs & Cats
There is also a variety of internal parasites that can threaten the health of your pet and (in some cases) your family.
Roundworms are a common parasite in pets. As the name implies, they’re large roundworms that live in the intestines and cause ascariasis. Kittens and puppies generally become infected with roundworms through nursing and can catch this parasite by eating the larvae found in the feces of other infected animals. Roundworms are a zoonotic parasite, which means humans can also become infected with roundworms.
If your pet has roundworms you may notice symptoms such as diarrhea, lack of energy, weight loss, or vomiting. In pets with few worms present, there may be no signs of infection, but you may see them in your dog or cat's stool or vomit. Since roundworm infection symptoms aren't always easy to spot, it is important to have your pet attend annual checkups at your vet's office and have yearly fecal exams.
These are flat, long, segmented parasites that attach to the walls of the small intestine. Cats and Dogs are most commonly infected by the Dipylidium canine species, but several types are known to infect pets. The way most pets get infected is by swallowing a flea that has been infected with the tapeworm, which can easily happen while they are grooming or as a response to flea bites.
Heartworms or Dirofilaria immitis, are protozoan parasites that live in the heart, lungs, and surrounding blood vessels of dogs and cats. Cats are generally more resistant to heartworm infection than dogs, however, the infection may still happen. This disease is transmitted by infected mosquito bites, when eggs find their way into your pet; the larvae travel through the bloodstream for several months, finally settling in the heart and pulmonary arteries.
Heartworm infections go undetected for months until the condition reaches more advanced stages when damage to the pet's internal organs has already begun. Treatment for heartworm disease is available however it is toxic to the pet, and can be very expensive. For this reason, many pet parents find themselves having to make the heartbreaking decision to euthanize cherished pets diagnosed with heartworm disease.
Parasite Prevention Made Easy
As you can see, parasites pose a very real threat to the overall health and longevity of your pet, but in many cases, parasite prevention is both easy and affordable. Not only that, many parasite prevention medications available from your vet protect your dog or cat against multiple parasites in just a single monthly dose.
By bringing your dog or cat to the vet once or twice a year for fecal testing and routine exams, as well as keeping your pet on appropriate parasite prevention, you are helping to safeguard your beloved dog or cat against the negative impact of common parasites.
To find out more about the parasites in your area that could negatively impact your pet's health, speak to your vet. Your veterinary professional understands the risk level of various parasites in your geographical area and can assess your pet's risk based on their lifestyle and other factors.
Preventing Tick-Borne Diseases
That said, when it comes to ticks, no medication is 100% effective. To help protect your dog or cat against tick-borne diseases have your pet on a tick prevention medication whenever ticks are active in your area, and check your animal's skin regularly. Most ticks are dark brown or black in color and can look like a dark mole or bump on your pet's skin. Ticks need to be removed properly and as soon as possible to prevent infection. Consider bringing your pet to your vet to have ticks removed safely and to learn how to remove ticks from your pet in the future.
Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.