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A Guide to Parasite Prevention for Dogs & Cats
By: Sam Chambers / Published July 11, 2023
Parasites are pesky little organisms that can be found almost anywhere year-round, so they’re incredibly common. The vast majority of pets will contract a parasite at least once during their lifetime, which is why parasite prevention for dogs and cats is so important. A walk along your favorite hiking trail or a visit to the local dog park could expose your pet to all kinds of creepy crawlies.
Parasites feed on other organisms to survive, and if a parasitic infestation is left untreated, your pet could suffer from severe, long-term complications. And if that’s not enough to make your skin crawl, some parasites are zoonotic — they can transfer from your pet, to you and your family. Protect the wellbeing of both your four-legged and two-legged family members by following this handy parasite prevention guide.
As the name suggests, external parasites are organisms that live on the outside of your pet. Fleas and ticks are perhaps the most well-known of the external parasites, but lice and mites also fall under this category. While external parasites may only cause mild skin irritations, they can also cause extreme discomfort for your pet and transmit serious diseases like Lyme disease.
Signs of external parasites in dogs and cats
It’s always a good idea to stay up to date on your pet’s flea and tick prevention medications, but in the meantime, the following signs could indicate that your pet brought home an unwanted guest:
- Generalized hair loss, or an overall thinning of your pet’s coat
- Intense itching and/or licking
- Excessive head shaking with brown or black ear discharge (sometimes caused by ear mite infestations)
- Scaly skin patches
- Skin irritation
- Anemia (weakness, lethargy, decreased appetite)
External parasites can wreak havoc on your pet’s health if left untreated. One flea may not seem like a big deal, but these bugs can lay up to 50 eggs a day, and an adult female tick can consume up to 100 times her weight in blood.
A mild external parasitic infestation can turn problematic very quickly, so if you notice any of the above signs, give your veterinarian a call.
Most internal parasites are worms that live in the intestinal tract of your pet and include roundworms, tapeworms, and hookworms. Giardia and coccidia also fall under this category and are extremely contagious among dog and cats.
Internal parasites are especially dangerous to the growth and development of puppies and kittens. Likewise, internal parasites can quickly become life-threatening for pets with weak immune systems.
Signs of internal parasites in dogs and cats
Internal parasites are usually found in a dog or cat’s stool. Every pet should have regular fecal exams, but your veterinarian may recommend more or less frequent testing depending on your pet’s lifestyle and whether you’re diligent with regular deworming.
Keep an eye out for the following signs of internal parasites in pets:
- Blood in stool
- Weight loss
- Decreased appetite
- Excessive coughing
- Distended/bloated abdomen
- Worm segments in fresh stool and/or bedding (they may resemble grains of rice)
Pets infected with intestinal parasites may not show any symptoms, so keep your dog or cat parasite-free by taking them to the veterinarian at least once a year for regular check-ups. If you suspect the presence of an internal parasite, give your veterinarian a call right away.
How to prevent parasites in pets
The most reliable way to prevent parasites is through year-round heartworm, flea, and tick prevention medication, as well as annual physical exams by your veterinarian.
These measures will certainly help prevent parasites, but they’re by no means foolproof, so here are some additional parasite prevention tips.
Practice good hygiene
Certain parasites are highly contagious and easily passed between pets and humans, so good hygiene is crucial — especially with young children in the home who are known to put everything in their mouths. This also includes washing your hands after touching your pet or cleaning up after them, regularly washing their bedding, frequently vacuuming any carpeting in the household, and giving your pet a bath if they become soiled.
Clean up after your pet
Since many internal parasites are transmitted through feces, clean up your pet’s waste promptly. You may also want to avoid areas where poor hygiene is practiced, such as dog parks where people might not regularly clean up after their pooch.
The risk of contracting Giardia is more common in overcrowded places like shelters, kennels, and dog parks, and is most frequently contracted from drinking water contaminated with fecal matter.
Keep in mind that indoor cats can still get parasites
You may believe that your indoor cat is safe from parasites, but fleas, ticks, mice, and mosquitos can still find their way into your home and infect your feline friend. While these pests may not seem dangerous, they can carry and transmit all kinds of nasty diseases.
If you’re pregnant, be aware that cat feces can carry a parasite that causes toxoplasmosis — an infection that you can contract and pass on to your unborn-baby. The chance of contracting toxoplasmosis is low, especially with indoor cats unless they consume raw meat or mice, but this infection can cause a miscarriage during the early stages of pregnancy.
Talk to your doctor if you’re pregnant so they can test whether you’ve been exposed to toxoplasma previously. If you haven’t, more precautions may be recommended by your doctor, but making sure your cat’s litterbox is cleaned at least once a day will greatly decrease your risk of contracting toxoplasmosis.
Avoid natural remedies and raw food diets
Avoid feeding your pet a raw food diet, as it may put them at a higher risk of contracting parasites and bacteria. If your cat brings home mice, small rodents, or birds, you need to have parasite control in place. Outdoor cats are much more likely to contract both internal and external parasites.
Pet parents also shouldn’t rely on natural remedies for parasite prevention, as they’re not effective and can sometimes make your pet sick. Always consult with your veterinarian before starting your pet on a raw food diet or natural parasite remedies.
Check your pet for parasites after coming inside
Anytime you come indoors after being outside with your pet, carefully check your friend for external parasites. The area around your pet’s collar, groin, and head are the most common places that attract parasites. Ticks start small but grow larger the longer they feed on your pet, so continue checking your pet for several days after coming home from a long hike or camping trip.
If you discover a tick on your pet, don’t panic! Removing ticks is straightforward and painless for your pet if you know what you’re doing.
Learn about parasites in your area
Visit the Companion Animal Parasite Council to learn about parasites in your area. The prevalence of parasites can change depending on your geographical location and the time of year, so a little research can be a real life-saver when it comes to parasite prevention.
Consider pet insurance
While parasite prevention and control is typically not covered by pet medical insurance, having good coverage in place can help lessen the worry overall about your pal’s health. By covering new, unexpected pet health expenses, pet insurance allows you to focus on your pet’s care rather than your finances.
Learn more about pet insurance today and how it can help your pet receive the best veterinary care.