Pet Parasites: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment
As the weather warms up and we venture outside more often with our pets, they become more susceptible to parasites, like ticks, tapeworms and ear mites.
And guess what … if not properly treated in a timely manner, parasites could be life threatening.
Continue reading to learn about:
What is a parasite?
According to the CDC, “A parasite is an organism that lives on or in a host organism and gets its food from or at the expense of its host.”
There are more than 1,000 species of parasites around the world that could affect your pet.
They fall into two categories:
External parasites live on the skin. Think fleas, ticks and mosquitoes. They bite, embed and generally irritate your pet’s skin. External parasites can cause more serious diseases like mange and scabies.
Internal parasites live (you guessed it) inside the host animal, in the blood or tissue. They can get in by way of contaminated food or water, or by burrowing through the skin. However they get in, they like to set up camp in one location where they can grow and reproduce.
Common Pet Parasites
Today we’ll talk about three of the most common parasites that affect domesticated animals:
- Intestinal worms
- Fleas and ticks
- Ear mites
Let’s look at each of these nasty little critters more closely...
The five most common types of intestinal worms are:
These are small parasites that affect the digestive organs of pets. They can cause major issues, like diarrhea, severe weight loss and even anemia in serious cases.
Intestinal Worm Symptoms
Symptoms to watch out for may include:
- Diarrhea or vomiting
- Tummy pain
- Weight loss
- Bloated belly
- Blood in the stool
Serious symptoms may also be present, albeit more difficult to recognize:
- Deficiencies in nutrition
- Intestinal blockage
Diagnosing Intestinal Worms
More often than not, tapeworms can be seen with the naked eye when viewing a stool sample.
Diagnosing roundworms and hookworms, however, requires a microscopic examination of the stool. If whipworms are suspected, your vet will look under the microscope for eggs in your pet’s stool.
Whipworms are more difficult to diagnose because they lay just a few small eggs sporadically, which can result in false negative tests. Several stool samples are often required to definitively diagnose whipworms.
Heartworms are commonly diagnosed with a blood test or, less often, a radiograph, ultrasound or echocardiogram (ECG).
Treating & Preventing Intestinal Worms
If your pet is diagnosed with worms, your vet will likely prescribe a deworming medication to treat the condition. He may also offer a preventative medication, such as Ivermectin, Trifexis or Sentinel Spectrum.
Preventative medications are available by prescription only. Talk to your veterinarian about which option is best for your pet.
Fleas and Ticks
When your pet gets fleas, it’s more of an annoyance than a life-threatening condition. But many animals are allergic to flea saliva, which can cause skin inflammation, itching and pain.
Ticks, on the other hand, can be more serious. They can cause serious illness like Lyme disease, paralysis and anemia.
Flea & Tick Symptoms
If you think your pet may have fleas or ticks, keep an eye out for these symptoms:
- Hair loss
- Allergic dermatitis
- Excessive scratching, licking or chewing
- Flea dirt
- Flea eggs
- Scabs and hot spots
Diagnosing Fleas & Ticks
A trip to the vet isn’t always necessary to diagnose fleas and ticks. That’s because you can usually spot them yourself.
Carefully pull back your pet’s fur to reveal the irritated skin. You’ll often be able to see small black spots that look like grains of sand. That’s flea dirt (flea droppings). You might also see white specs of “sand.” Those are flea eggs.
Fleas don’t just live on pets. They can live on humans (ew!) and they live in areas where your pet spends a lot of time, like their pet bed or food and water bowls.
Oh … and if Fido or Fluffy sleep in your bed, chances are you'll find fleas there, too.
If you suspect there are fleas in your house, try putting a small bowl of warm water next to a night light in an area where your pet spends a lot of time. If you see little bugs jumping into the water, you have fleas. So do your pets.
Ticks are easier to see on your pet because they’re bigger than fleas. Ticks bury their heads deep into the skin to feast on blood. Once their bodies become engorged, they’re even easier to spot.
If your pet has been romping around in the bushes, forest or tall grass, give him a quick once over to be sure he hasn’t picked up an unwanted hitchhiker.
Flea & Tick Treatment & Prevention
Your veterinarian can prescribe any one of many flea and tick prevention medications. Some common ones are:
- Frontline Plus Flea & Tick
- Advantage II Flea Treatment
Otodectes cynotis, the most common species of ear mites, live on all kinds of pets, including dogs, cats, ferrets, hamsters, mice and rabbits. They can be found deep in the ear canal, but can also live on the surface of your pet’s skin.
Ear Mite Symptoms
Similar to the symptoms of an ear infection, ear mites may be the cause of:
- Head shaking
- Unpleasant odour coming from the ear
- Excessive ear scratching
- Redness or swelling inside or outside the ear
- Brown, yellow or bloody discharge
Diagnosing Ear Mites
Sometimes ear mites can be diagnosed at home. Collect a small sample of debris from your pet’s outer ear canal and place it on a dark background. Live ear mites look like white specks about the size of a pinhead. When you look at them with a magnifying glass, you’ll see those little white specks moving.
If you’re not sure about what you see, or if your pet is in too much pain to collect a sample at home, make an appointment with your vet.
There they can look for mites inside your pet’s ear canals using an otoscope. Or they may take skin scrapings for lab analysis or ear swabs to view under a microscope.
Treating & Preventing Ear Mites
First, thoroughly clean the ear canal to flush out ear mites. Your vet can show you how to do this at home.
There are several over-the-counter ear mite medications you can use to treat your pet, such as:
Or your vet may prescribe a single-dose ear mite treatment like:
Ear mites are highly contagious. They can easily spread to other animals in your home, so even if they’re not diagnosed, all pets will need to be treated.
We also strongly recommend doing a deep clean of your home:
- Wash all bedding (and pet beds) in hot water followed by a full cycle in the dryer on high heat
- Thoroughly vacuum all the areas where your pets spend a lot of time (that includes the furniture!)
- Wash any clothing that may have been exposed to the ear mites
Parasite Prevention Tips
Did you know that parasites carry diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans?
Protecting your furry friends also means protecting yourself.
Prevention is the best way to keep you and your pets safe from harmful parasites.
- Keep your yard free of feces
- Keep your pets on monthly or year-round parasite preventives
- Visit your vet for routine deworming and parasite screenings
- Proper hygiene: Wash your hands after exposure to sand or raw meat
- Boost your pet’s immune system with scientifically formulated supplements