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Ticks, Fleas, Mosquitoes -- Oh My! Protecting Your Dog Against External Parasites

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(Steven Shigeo Yamada)

Ticks, possibly the least lovable of all the multi-legged creatures, get very busy in spring. Like their warm-blooded meals, they enjoy the cooler temperatures of spring and fall, so here we are in the midst of a seasonal tick outbreak. A tick uptick, if you will.

And fleas, perhaps the second least loveable creatures, aren't far behind as they gear up for the hot and humid months, thirsting for hosts.

Mosquitos are out there too, gearing up after a long winter's hiatus. In addition to searching for meals, they're scanning for stagnant water pools to deposit their eggs. On average, baby mosquitos take 10-14 days to hatch, so scan your yard and upset any puddles.

These irritating bloodsuckers are collectively known as vectors. They make my skin crawl.

To conquer the onslaught, you need to think like, well, like a vector. What do vectors think about? No big surprise really: breeding and eating. That's about it. Understanding these limited goals will help you reduce your pet's exposure, and in turn, your own.

Ticks: Ticks love to lay eggs in the loose, fallen leaves that accumulate in fall. From these eggs emerge hundreds of new and hungry ticks. Homeowners beware: Rake out any leaf deposits you may have missed last fall.

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(University of Rhode Island Tick Encounter Resource Center)

If you're out in nature, stick to well-maintained trails. The University of Rhode Island offers a fabulous resource site outlining -- among other facts -- the different habitats that various species of ticks prefer. Some like dense brush, while others prefer the tall grasses. Think you're safe on the pavement or sidewalks? Ticks can be found there, too. As ticks ride on their hosts until they're full, they can drop off in the most unsuspecting places, which can also include your home.

If a tick bites you or your dog, Lyme disease is but one of the many viruses you may contract. Ticks also transmit anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, cytauxzoonosis, and -- only in humans -- tularemia and tick paralysis. Perhaps most disturbing is that one tick can transmit a "cocktail" of multiple viruses at once.

Is there any good news to be found in this blog?

Not a lot. During this high tick season, be on the lookout for these pests; if you can remove a tick within 24 hours, it may not have enough time to transmit the viruses. As far as your pets go, you can employ one or multiple forms of deterrents, from topical applications to yard treatments and collars. More on that to come.

Fleas: These flightless jumpers get around. While they prefer warmer temperatures and high humidity, they are found across the world breeding on their hosts and feasting on blood. Living approximately 100 days, they mobilize from host to host with rapid determination and are a homeowner's worst nightmare. Eggs, once laid, roll off the host and settle where they land, inside or out. Each egg releases a worm (scientifically known as a pupae) that soon evolves into a flea that eagerly bounds away, looking for a meal.

Fleas can cause a host of diseases and deficiencies including flea allergy dermatitis, hemoplasmas, iron deficiency anemia, typhus, and bartonella (spread by cats, also known as cat scratch disease). In the past, fleas were responsible for spreading the bubonic plague.

Mosquitoes: Little needs to be said about this charming little vector, which in Spanish translates to "little fly." Responsible for spreading yellow fever, malaria and filariasis in the past, the mosquito has other recent claims to fame, namely heartworm (dogs only) and the West Nile virus.

So what's a pet owner to do?

My friend, fellow blogger and radio host, Steve Dale (co-author of Decoding Your Dog), is on a feverish lecture tour educating pet owners on how best to protect their pets from these external parasites. We spoke during his stop in New York. He informed me that since our pets can't talk, many vector-borne disease go unreported. I asked him about everything from the effectiveness of herbal remedies and yard treatments to topical sprays, repellant collars and oral pet tabs. I compared his research to what I've learned in the field. Here's my take.

How thoroughly you delve into the pest-prevention mode is going to depend on where you live. I live in a tick-central, suburban New York setting, so tick prevention is high on my radar. If I called Florida home, I might be concerned about fleas, or if my yard abutted marshes or stagnant pools, mosquitos.

Before I had kids I would spend hours researching, preparing and applying non-toxic remedies on my pets. I used flea combs after each walk and picked through their coats meticulously every night. I congratulated myself on avoiding commercial mixtures, but during that decade, both my dogs and I got Lyme disease, and we had a flea infestation that took months to resolve.

After giving birth to human kids, I have much less time and far bigger concerns. Though I've not been a fan of using chemical preventatives more than necessary, I've learned the hard way that prevention is worth much more than the cure. Now, in addition to yard treatments and herbal sprays, I've used bug deterrent collars on my cats, heartworm pills and topical applications.

For me, the key word in my discussions with Steve Dale was "repellant." The products we use should repel vectors, not simply kill them after they bite our pets.

Another tremendously key point Steve made was the difference between store bought preventatives -- which are often far less effective, as noted on the label -- and those purchased through a reputable veterinarian.

"What about buying the collars online?" I practically shouted, the convenience of which cannot be argued. Steve pointed out that many online vendors are selling expired treatments that are ineffective or less reputable products that may be more dangerous to our pet's health as well as less effective. In addition, there is a concern of combining some collars with certain medications a pet may already be prescribed, or using a product if a dog is pregnant. It is imperative that people speak to their veterinarian before deciding on a product or combination of deterrents.

As a nearing middle-aged mom responsible for a multi-pet household, it was the concern for my human inhabitants that became the final straw in my effort to use repellants to deter vectors from piggybacking across our threshold. My pets, from the reptile to the rabbit, and all the dogs and cats in between, have found their way -- at one time or another -- onto our beds, and routinely join us on the couch. For their sake, as well as our own, I keep striving to keep our home pest-free!

Have any thoughts or tips to share? I hope you do! Please comment below.

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