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Fleas, ticks and worms: what they are and how to protect your puppy from them

The complete guide to stopping parasites in their tracks

Written by Dr. Steph Wenban

May 28, 2019

Fleas, ticks and worms may be minuscule. But they can cause BIG health problems. Not just for your puppy, but for you too. Which is why it’s really important that you take preventive steps to keep these nasty critters at bay. This, however, is easier said than done.

There are many different types of fleas, ticks and worms lurking in the environment. And for each one, comes a different range of preventative treatments. All of this makes knowing which treatments to use and when something of a minefield for pet parents.

But a totally winnable minefield all the same!

The first step? Awareness. By familiarising yourself with the different parasites out there, you’ll be halfway to the finish line in beating them. And here to help you do just that is Paws vet Steph. Her thorough - and at times downright gory - breakdown of fleas, ticks and worms will have you brought up to expert status in no time.

It may also change the way you look at pasta forever...

What are fleas, ticks and worms?

Fleas, ticks and worms are all parasites living in the environment. And by environment we mean inside, outside, at home, in the park - these little beasts can be found everywhere!

How do they differ?

In lots of ways! And the simplest way to break it down is my whipping out the microscope and taking a good, hard, grisly look at each one individually.

Ready?

  • Fleas

What they are: An insect. There are many different types of fleas but the most common found on dogs is the cat flea (a.k.a. Ctenocephalides felis).

Why they’re bad: Some fleas carry tapeworms which can have serious health consequences for both people and dogs. (More on that below!)

What’s more, fleas are extremely hard to spot. Only 5% of them are visible to the naked eye. (These are the adult fleas you’ll be able to see running around in your dog’s coat). Meanwhile, the remaining 95% are too miniscule to see. (These are the fleas eggs living in your carpet, bedding, sofa, etc).

How dogs get them: Dogs usually pick up fleas in the home after they’ve been brought in on people’s clothing or by other pets. Sometimes fleas can present before you move in.

Common signs and symptoms: Because fleas themselves are so difficult to spot, the easiest thing to look out for is the poo they leave behind. This will look like little black dots, around about the size of sand in your puppy’s coat.

The other key giveaway that your puppy could have fleas is they’re nibbling and scratching, particularly around their bottom and tail region.

  • Ticks

What they are: Ticks are a type of arachnid, a small creature similar to a spider or mite.

Most ticks are oval-shaped, grey or brown in colour and not be confused with your dog’s nipple. (Don’t worry, we’ve all been there.) They can range in size from a poppy seed to a baked bean.

Why they’re bad: Ticks can carry several diseases which they can transfer to dogs through their bite. The big ones include:

  • Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that causes fever, rashes and arthritis.

  • Babesiosis (pronounced bah-bee-si-oh-sis). This is a malaria-like disease that can lead to weakness and fever.

  • Ehrlichia (pronounced er-lick-ee-uh). This is a bacterial infection that causes fever and neurological problems.

How dogs get them: Most ticks live in wooded undergrowth or bushy areas. When a dog passes through, they grab onto its coat and start feeding on its blood.

Common signs and symptoms: The first sign of ticks are the ticks themselves. Because ticks prefer dark, moist areas, the best places to look for them will be around your dog's ears, neck, legs, groin, and armpits.

Ticks are most active between April to September.

TWIST and LIFT

If you find a tick on your puppy, avoid pulling it out. Instead, use tweezers or a tick twizzler to twist and lift it out. This will prevent the head from snapping off and remaining under your puppy’s skin.

  • Tapeworms

What they are: Flat, ribbon-like intestinal worms. Think tagliatelle… but not.

Why they’re bad: People can pick up tapeworms from their dogs. This happens when someone (usually a small child) accidentally eats tapeworm eggs found in their dog's fur, poo or in the soil in their garden. Some types of tapeworms can even lead to Hydatid disease, a condition that causes cysts to develop in vital organs of the human body. If left untreated, it can be fatal

How dogs get them: By eating raw meat (particularly offal like liver and heart) from animals that already have tapeworms. Common carriers include sheep, cattle and pigs. Another way dogs can get tapeworms is by ingesting fleas.

Common signs and symptoms: If your dog has tapeworms, the first thing you’ll probably see is them itching or dragging their bottom on the ground. You may even notice small white egg packets similar to grains of rice built up around their anus. (Apologies for the grossness. But it’s true.) Additional symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea, weight loss, and a bloated belly.

  • Roundworms

What they are: Thin, whitish-yellow intestinal worms. (Did someone say spaghetti?)

There are many different types of roundworms, but the one most commonly seen in puppies goes by the name of Toxocara canis.

Why they’re bad: Like tapeworms, roundworms can also infect people. This usually occurs when a person (again, often a small child) accidentally eats soil or dog poo that has been contaminated with roundworm eggs. In some cases, roundworms can lead to Ocular Larva Migrans, a condition which can cause blindness in people.

For dogs, the effects of roundworms are quite different. In low doses, they are unlikely to cause much harm. But in more extreme cases (where there is a heavy build-up of worms in the intestines), the intestines can become damaged or blocked. In rare instances, this can be fatal.

How dogs get them: Some puppies pick up roundworms from their mother - either in the womb or from suckling their milk. Roundworms can also be picked up by eating soil that has been contaminated with roundworm eggs.

Common signs and symptoms: A bloated tummy, coughing, vomiting, and diarrhoea. However, some dogs may show no symptoms at all.

  • Lungworm

What they are: Small pink worms. In scientific circles, these guys go by the catchy name of Angiostrongylus vasorum.

Why they’re bad: Lungworms travel through the bloodstream causing damage to the heart and lungs along the way. They can also interfere with blood clotting which means that if your dog gets a cut, they’ll bleed for longer. If left untreated, lungworms can be fatal for dogs.

How dogs get them: By eating small frogs, slugs or snails that are already infected with lungworm.

Common signs and symptoms: Coughing and breathing problems that get worse with exercise, back pain, seizures, bruising and blood in your dog’s wee.

  • Hookworm

What they are: Small, thin intestinal worms. There are several different types of hookworms but the one that poses the biggest risk to puppies is Ancylostoma caninum.

Why they’re bad: Hookworms latch onto the intestinal wall and suck blood to feed - a process that can lead to blood loss, intestinal damage and sometimes even death in puppies. Hookworms can also infect people who come into contact with contaminated soil. Once they get onto a person’s skin, they burrow in, causing inflammation and extreme itchiness. (Again, we offer our sincerest apologies for the gross factor.)

How dogs get them: Some puppies pick up hookworms from their mother. This can happen either in the womb or from sucking their milk. Dogs can also get them from eating or walking through soil contaminated with hookworm eggs.

Common signs and symptoms: Itchy skin (usually around the toes), black/tarry poo, diarrhoea, constipation and weight loss. However, it’s important to note that not all dogs will show signs of hookworms.

  • Whipworm

What they are: Intestinal worms with thin, whip-like tails. Also known as Trichuris vulpis.

Why they’re bad: Whipworms burrow into the wall of the intestine to feed on blood. In extreme cases, whipworms can cause anaemia. If a dog has hookworms and whipworms at the same time, it can cause serious damage to the intestines and may even be fatal.

How dogs get them: By eating poo or soil that has been contaminated with whipworm eggs.

Common signs and symptoms: Not all dogs show signs of whipworms. However if they do, they will most commonly present in the form of blood or mucus in your dog’s poo, diarrhoea, and weight loss.

What's the best way to beat these suckers?

When it comes to protecting your four-legged friend from fleas, ticks, and worms there is no silver bullet.

Where some treatments will provide coverage for up to 5 or 6 parasites, others may only offer coverage for 1. So to ensure your pup is fully protected, you’re going to need opt for a combo of products.

And the dosage instructions? Well, they vary again, depending on where you live, what season it is and which parasites you’re trying to protect against.

Even the style of treatment you use will be influenced by the lifestyle you and your pup lead. For example, if you treat your dog to daily swims or baths, then spray and spot-on treatments may not be the best option for you.

Ultimately, the best way around this thorny subject is to speak to your vet. They’ll be able to advise you on the best flea, tick, and worm treatments for your puppy based on your personal information.

Prescription vs over-the-counter treatments

Flea, tick and worm treatments fall into one of two categories:

1. Over-the-counter (OTC) treatments. These can be found at supermarkets, pet stores and online retailers.

2. Prescription treatments only available from vet surgeries or pharmacists.

Generally speaking, prescription medications provide a broader range of parasite cover in each product. Whereas over-the-counter treatments will typically only protect your pup from one or two parasites at a time.

This, however, isn’t always the case. All flea, tick, and worm treatments differ - in price, strength and coverage. So to make sure you pick the right one for you and your puppy, be sure to speak to your vet first.

List of available treatments

The table below outlines the UK’s leading flea, tick and worm treatments along with their coverage period for each parasite.

List last updated: May 2019

Natural remedies

You don’t have to look far to find claims of natural remedies providing the best line of defence against parasites. Things like pumpkin seed oil, apple cider vinegar and citrus peel have all been held up as preventative treatments. While it’s unlikely that these products will cause your puppy any harm, there is no scientific evidence to suggest they work.

Our advice? Don't risk it. All products sold - whether they’re prescription or over-the-counter - have been proven non-harmful and effective.

If you do choose to go down the path of alternative treatments, just be sure to avoid products that may be toxic to your pup (like onion and garlic). Also make a habit of asking your vet for regular flea and worm checks. These will involve looking through your dog’s coat and having you bring in a poo sample for testing.

When should I start treating my puppy for parasites?

In some cases, as soon as you pick them up from their breeder or shelter!

Puppies are susceptible to fleas, ticks, and worms from the moment they’re born. In fact, many puppies will pick up worms from their mothers, either while they’re in the womb or from suckling their milk.

For this reason, it’s important that you get on top of your pup’s flea, tick and worm treatment from day one. And the best place to start is with your puppy’s breeder or shelter. When collecting your new bundle of joy, be sure to ask where your puppy is up to in their flea, tick and worm treatments and which products they’ve previously been given.

Once you have this info, you’ll be all set to take the reins.

The takeaway

Like we said, navigating the world of fleas, ticks and worms is a lot like navigating a minefield. It’s tricky work, made all the more tricky by the fact that there is no one fix for all these parasites.

At the same time, you have more control over this niggling situation than you might think.

Taking the time to learn about the critters are lurking in your dog’s environment is the first step to keeping them safe.

As for the second step, that’d be speaking to your vet. With the list of treatments updating and changing all the time, there really is no room for guesswork. So do yourself (and your puppy) a big favour by always taking your flea, tick and worm treatment cues from a professional.

Now... who’s for some pasta?

Sources:

European Scientific Counsel Companion Animal Parasites (ESCCAP) - Control of Ectoparasites 6th edition https://www.esccapuk.org.uk/uploads/docs/nwhkfx5g_0720_ESCCAP_Guideline_GL3_update_v6.pdf

European Scientific Counsel Companion Animal Parasites (ESCCAP) - Worm control in dogs & cats 3rd edition

https://www.esccapuk.org.uk/uploads/docs/ysenc4nv_ESCCAP_Guideline_01_Third_Edition_July_2017.pdf NOAH Compendium - Data Sheet for Animal Medicines http://www.noahcompendium.co.uk/datasheets

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