Dealing With Pet Parasites

For many dogs and cats and their owners, external parasites are the bane of their lives, as they can cause irritation, pain and even serious disease. However, by taking some simple precautions, you can control these parasites, prevent infestations and avoid disease and other problems.


Signs of infestation: your pet constantly and repeatedly scratches and chews their coats; in extreme cases, patches of hair loss and irritated, red skin. In some situations, you may even see tiny brown fleas moving through your pet’s fur.

How to check: the best way to confirm fleas is to check for “flea dirt” (flea faeces) – to do this, while your pet is sitting or lying down, briskly rub a section of their coat with a white piece of paper. Black flecks which look like dirt may appear on the paper. Now gently moisten the paper and you will see the specks turn red or rust-coloured, due to the blood sucked out of your pet. If the specks do not turn red, then they are just “normal” dirt and grime.

Problems caused: fleas can cause not only itching and discomfort but also severe allergies and transmit other parasites, such as tapeworms, to your pet. In weakened or young animals, a flea infestation can be so bad as to cause the animal to become anaemic.

Prevention: fleas are usually more of a problem in the warm-weather months – however, with pets now living indoors with central heating, fleas can also be a problem during the cooler winter months. Prevention is much easier than cure so make sure you treat your pet regularly with a product which kills fleas and prevents them from reproducing. There are a variety of products on the market, from powders and collars to spot-on treatments which are squeezed into the coat and which are the most popular nowadays – consult your vet for the type of product most suitable to your situation. In addition, vacuuming frequently and washing all your pet’s bedding in hot water regularly will reduce the number of developing fleas.

Treating an infestation: you may need to spray all areas that your dog spends time in with a specific insecticide – this is best done by a pest control expert. In addition, you will need to treat your pet with a flea-control product to prevent a re-infestation. Don’t forget that cats and dogs will happily share fleas with each other (and possibly other furry mammalian pets in the household) so you will need to treat all animals in the household simultaneously to really eliminate an infestation.


Signs of infestation?: like other external parasites, ticks will cause your pet irritation and discomfort. Ticks fasten to their hosts by burying their heads into the skin of your pet and then gorging themselves on blood and this will usually causes minor skin irritation. In occasional cases, however, they may even cause fever, anaemia, loss of appetite and lethargy or depression.

How to check: It is usually fairly easy to see ticks on your pets, especially after they become engorged with blood and enlarged. Depending on which region you live in and the time of the year (tick activity increases in the warmer months), you may find ticks on your pet more frequently and easily – and it may even be worth running your hands over your dog’s body, checking for ticks, after every walk. Tick species can also vary in different areas so check with your vet about the tick species common to your local area.

Problems caused: The mouthparts that ticks use to attach themselves to your pet will embed themselves under the skin and cause irritation and inflammation. Some ticks will also produce a sticky, glue-like substance to further help them remain attached. In general, however, the problems are caused not so much by the ticks themselves but by the disease organisms they may be carrying, such as Lyme disease. These diseases not only affect your dog but can also be transmitted to people and can cause serious consequences. For example, Lyme disease can cause arthritis and swelling of the joints and even lead to serious complications such as meningitis and Bell’s palsy.

Prevention: it is hard to prevent your pets from being exposed to ticks, unless you never allow them outdoors. For many cats, this would be cruel and for dogs, this would be impossible. Dogs commonly pick up ticks during outdoor activities such as walking and hiking with their owners. Therefore the most effective prevention is by using tick control product regularly. Consult your vet for the best product for your dog and your situation. You can also find out about the prevalence of tick-borne diseases in your area to find out how much of a risk an infestation would be. Your vet may also be able to tell you of areas that you can avoid, where large numbers of ticks are found.

Treating an infestation: Ticks are usually only spotted after they become engorged. Before that, they are only about the size of a pinhead. You should remove a tick as soon as you see it on your pet. Put on a pair of gloves and use fine-tipped tweezers to avoid any contact with the tick’s blood, which can transmit infection. Grasp the tick as close to its mouth as possible but be careful not to squeeze the body as this may cause the tick to regurgitate contaminated blood back into your pets bloodstream.

Pull up and away from the skin, using steady, even pressure. Don’t jerk the tweezers or try to twist the tick off. Hopefully, the tick may come away entirely however, often the mouthparts may remain embedded in the skin. It is important to remove these completely using the tweezers or a sterilised needle as they can cause infection and inflammation. Finally, disinfect the site of the bite with warm soapy water. Don’t forget to make a note of the tick species, if you can, and the date, time and length of time of the bite – in case you require this information later for treating any diseases your pet may have been infected with.


There are 3 types of mites that can affect pets: ear mites and Demodex or Sarcoptic mites which cause mange and scabies.

Signs of infestation: mites will usually cause irritation and scratching. Ear mites will cause your pet to constantly scratch its ear or shake its head and you will see the inside of the ear becoming red and inflamed. Demodex and Sarcoptic mites, on the other hand, live in the hair follicles or oil glands of your pet’s coat or on the skin surface. They will cause patchy hair loss, as well as irritation, redness and itching.

How to check: the best diagnosis is via a skin scraping of the infected area and should be done by a vet. Therefore, take your pet to the vet should you notice the symptoms described above. The most common places for infestations are the head and neck area. Note, however, that scabies can be difficult to diagnose reliably by skin scrapings so may need to consider clinical signs and other risk factors.

Problems caused: In healthy animals, mites often do not cause any serious problems other than a mild irritation and most localised infestations will resolve by themselves. However, certain animals may be particularly vulnerable to mites from birth and may develop widespread demodectic mange, which can be harder to treat.

These animals often have another medical condition that is compromising their immune system. The slightly different Sarcoptes scabiei mite is a more serious case: it burrows into the skin of its host and causes intense itching, leading to scabs and hair loss and possibly severe eczema. Ear mites and demodex mange do not usually pose any risks to humans – however, sarcoptic mange or ‘scabies’ is highly contagious and can be transmitted to humans.

Prevention: mites are transmitted through touch and social interaction with other infested animals, so areas where large numbers of animals congregate are usually higher risks. However, the main preventative is to ensure that your pets overall health is good so that it has naturally strong immunity to mite infestations. Keeping a clean environment will also help prevent the development of mange.

Treating an infestation: like other external parasites, mites can be treated by a number of products and all animals in a household will have to be treated simultaneously due to the highly contagious nature of mite infestations. Again, consult your vet for the best product in your situation.

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