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Fleas, Ticks, Worms and Other Pet Parasites

Updated on January 14, 2016
Bob Bamberg profile image

With 30 years in the pet supply industry, Bob's newspaper column deals with animal health, nutrition, behavior, regulation, and advocacy.

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Klingons or Cling-ons: They're Both Bad!

The good thing about the Klingons that Capt. Kirk chased around the galaxy is the fact that they're fictitious. The cling-ons I'm writing about are very real, and there's nothing much good about them.

I'm referring to parasites, specifically the ones that bother our pets. A parasite is defined as an organism that relies on another organism for food and/or shelter, but not necessarily to the detriment of the host organism.

To illustrate how sometimes parasites can be helpful, think about the wildlife documentaries you've seen that feature hooved stock or rhinos. You always see tick birds scampering all over the host animals. This is an example of a parasitic relationship, known as mutualism, in which both animals benefit.

The tick birds have a bountiful banquet at their beaktips, and the hosts have harmful ticks removed from their hide. This is another example of a symbiotic relationship; different, however, from yet another form of symbiotic relationship.

Think about the documentaries you've seen on sharks. Those little fish, called remora, that you always see accompanying the shark are hitchhikers, eating scraps that don't get swallowed by the shark.

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This is known as commensalism, a type of symbiotic relationship, in which one party always benefits and the other party may also benefit, or it may be harmed or simply unaffected. The shark neither benefits nor is harmed. The remora, however, benefits big-time. It gets a free ride (expending less energy), a free meal (doesn't need to hunt and gather), and protection (ain't no one gonna mess with you if you're attached to a shark!).

The kinds of parasites that affect our pets are harmful; and there are two types: ectoparasites, such as fleas, which live outside the host, and endoparasites, such as tapeworms, which live inside the host.

With few exceptions, parasites harm, but don't usually kill, their hosts. That's because Mother Nature teaches them that you don't “eat your seed corn.” Unchecked, however, they can cause secondary infections or systemic problems that can be fatal if not treated. One notable exception to that unwritten rule is heartworms. They don’t need to spawn a secondary infection to kill their hosts.

Ectoparasites that affect pets include fleas, ticks, lice, flies, mosquitoes and other biting insects, and mites; which, by the way, aren't insects at all, but arachnids (like spiders).

Control of ectoparasites is usually with chemical or natural insecticidal sprays, powders, dips, or spot-ons (such as Frontline or Advantage). A word of caution, though:

Cats aren't able to tolerate insecticides as well as dogs; especially permethrins. If a product is labeled for use on both species, that's one thing. But if it's labeled for use on dogs, absolutely do not use it on cats. Not even in reduced dosages.

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Endoparasites that affect pets are primarily intestinal worms and heartworms, although there are others, such as protozoa and nematodes. Intestinal worms are usually treated with oral medications that cause them to detach from the intestinal wall and be excreted. Sometimes repeated treatments are necessary because not all life stages of the parasite are susceptible to the medicine.

While not usually immediately life-threatening, parasites, nevertheless, aren't something to be trifled with. They cause pain or discomfort, changes in bowel habits, anemia, and more serious systemic problems as the infestation advances.

In many cases it takes microscopic examination of stool samples, or other lab work, to confirm their presence. But, a very attentive pet owner will notice pale gums, a sign of anemia, and suspect something is wrong. Everyone will notice changes in bowel habits, another symptom that the pet is hosting some parasites. Of course, changes in bowel habits can mean a gazillion other things, too. In either case, a call to the veterinarian is in order.

And if there aren’t enough reasons to take quick action against a parasite infestations, remember this: in some cases parasites can be transmitted from pets to people (zoonoses), with similar symptoms and results.

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    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Patty, thanks for stopping by. And thanks, especially, for the volunteer work you do for needy animals. Experience has taught me that shelter volunteers and animal rescue workers are a special group of people to whom society owes a huge debt of gratitude.

      Don't be too hard on the parasites. They, and predators, are thought to have significant influence on diversification within and between their hosts or prey. On the surface they seem to be cruel troublemakers, but they have their role.

      Sort of like scavengers. They're too lazy or inept to hunt on their own, relying on the largess of the hunters, but they do clean up the environment. While not earning our respect, I guess they do earn our thanks.

      Nice to see you again and thanks for the comments. Regards, Bob

    • Pages-By-Patty profile image

      Pages-By-Patty 4 years ago from Midwest

      Wow, Bob, useful and witty!

      As a volunteer for an animal non profit, I deal with alot of outdoor only animals and this year was the worst for fleas that I have experienced in a long time.

      Parasites are costly, dangerous and annoying...all that havoc rolled up into something the size of a pinhead! I'll never figure out why those suckers were created!

      Thanks for another great article in pet care!