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The Creepy and the Crawly: Know Your Parasites

As a vet, I get the distinct honor of encountering almost every kind of creepy crawly. You almost have to have a minor in entomology! It’s actually quite a fascinating world. Lice, ticks, fleas and mites were not created equal. Each has their own distinct and different design. Some like lots of hair, some don’t; some only desire one kind of animal, while others don’t discriminate; some can make you deathly ill while others are harmless. Before I jump into the breakdown I’ll tell you the pet care question I get asked frequently: of the parasites below, which one do I fear the most? Answer to follow…

Lice

An individual lice is known as a louse. A louse is an interesting little guy. He only likes his type of animal and no other. It’s known as host-specific. So if your kitty catches lice (which is difficult and rare) from another outside cat they wouldn’t want anything to do with you. Lice can be seen as tiny, white flecks attached to the hair shafts. It’s an easy condition to treat. There are effective over-the-counter remedies, although a vet is the surest way to go.

Mites

Dogs are fairly commonly afflicted with mites, also known as Mange. There are two types of mites we encounter in the canine—Sarcoptes or Demodex. Sarcoptic Mange is a contagious condition. Your pooch would have to come in contact with an infected dog. The mites burrow just under the skin and prefer the hairless regions—armpits and groin. They cause intense itching. Demodectic mange is not something contracted. Rather, all dogs harbor a few mites under the skin. During times of stress or immune failure these mite begin to flourish and spread. Both conditions are treatable, though Demodex is much more difficult. Sarcoptes, however, can spread to people. If a kitty were to “catch” a mite, it would be ear mites aka Otodectes. Thousands of these mites can congregate in a cat’s ear. Their excrement will leave a black residue that looks like coffee grounds in the ear canal. This is contagious to other cats only.

Ticks

These can be violent offenders and love most anything warm-blooded (they are not host-specific.) If you live on the East Coast or near wooded areas then you know all too well the risk they pose. They transmit a number of diseases to dogs, cats and people—Lyme disease is a popular one. Prevention in your pets is the best defense. There’s a number of effective products available. Frontline has been my long running recommendation. Recently a generic called Pet Armor, for roughly half the price, has hit the market.

Fleas

Able to jump about six feet, these critters are the best jumpers in the entire animal world, relative to body size. Although they can spend weeks or longer on their host, fleas are bloodsuckers that depend on frequent feedings to survive. This is where science finally gained the advantage: the best way to eliminate a stubborn flea problem in your pets and home is to always have them wearing a topical flea & tick treatment. The days of bombing your house and yard with damaging chemicals are gone. Your pet will act like a minesweeper, collecting and killing stray fleas if they’re always protected. Your second weapon is the vacuum. A university study showed that vacuuming your house thoroughly can remove about 95% of the fleas.

So can you guess which creepy crawly I think is the worst? If you guessed a tick, then you’re correct! I would dread being dropped into a nest of ticks above all else. They are disease-ridden and painful to remove. It’s also worth reminding that an ounce of prevention is most definitely worth a pound of cure.

Dr. Kwane Stewart, DVM graduated from Colorado State in 1997. He practiced small animal medicine in Southern California before becoming a shelter vet two years ago. He lives with his son, his cat “Sushi”, and his Doberman “Diesel” in Modesto, California.

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