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Keep Fluffy, Fido, and Yourself Safe from Bug-borne Illnesses

Image of Keep Fluffy, Fido, and Yourself Safe from Bug-borne Illnesses. U.S. Army Capt. (Dr.) Lorimay Melendez performs a physical exam of a service member’s dog at the Alexander T. Augusta Military Medical Center, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, May 2023. Melendez is a new U.S. Army Veterinary Corps officer assigned to the first-year graduate veterinary education program, where she’ll develop skills in animal care, food protection, veterinary public health, leadership, communication, and collaboration. Military veterinarians are experts in keeping animal companions, military working dogs, and ceremonial equines free from diseases transmitted by bugs.. (U.S. Army Maj. (Dr.) Sarah Watkins, U.S. Army Veterinary Corps)

You love your pets and want them to be healthy. Two military veterinarians tell you what you need to know to protect your animal companions from illnesses caused by pests, such as ticks, fleas, and mosquitoes, that are vectors for infection.

“We can see a variety of vector-borne diseases in our practices, depending on where you are in the U.S. or the world,” said U.S. Army Maj. (Dr.) Sarah Watkins, a first-year graduate veterinary education public health instructor at Public Health Activity in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Watkins is responsible for teaching veterinary preventive medicine topics to junior officers in the 107-year-old U.S. Army Veterinary Corps.

The most common vector-borne diseases veterinarians see on the U.S. East Coast are “those carried by ticks, such as Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and those carried by mosquitos, such as heartworm disease, which primarily affects dogs, cats, and ferrets,” Watkins said. “In some parts of the U.S., such as the Southwest, veterinary practices may also see plague, which can be carried by fleas.”

Animal to Human Transmission

Not only can Fluffy, Fidot, or Speedy the ferret get sick, but so can you, and that’s one of Watkins’ big concerns.

“You can't be directly infected with a vector-borne disease from your pet. But the vectors, such as ticks, could bite you and your pet since you share the same environment, ultimately spreading disease to both of you,” Watkins said.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Melissa Hehr, chief of veterinary public health, Veterinary Service Division, at the Defense Centers for Public Health-Falls Church, Virginia, said some diseases can move or be transmitted between people and pets.

“The various tick species responsible for transmitting Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme disease can move between pets, people, and the environment, making it possible for a person to become infected from a tick that may have hitched a ride on their dog’s coat,” Hehr said.

However, “due to the highly mobile nature of ticks, it would be difficult to determine just how many human cases of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or Lyme disease may be attributed to pets who serve as tick taxis,” Hehr added.

She recommends the Companion Animal Parasite Council website as an excellent source for information.

“Your veterinarian is also a fantastic resource to consult with regarding your individual pet’s parasite risks,” Hehr said. “They can recommend preventive measures and products tailored to meet your pet’s needs by taking into consideration their health status, activities, and geographic location.”

Keeping Spot and Whiskers Safe, and You Too

Prevention all year long is the key to keeping ticks, fleas, and other parasites at bay, Watkins and Hehr advised.

“Pets that are not protected from fleas and ticks can carry these infected vectors into the home, creating a risk for infection to the other members of the household,” Watkins cautioned.

Dogs and cats can serve as hosts for internal parasites or external parasites, which can cause discomfort, illness, and associated problems, Hehr said.

Several of the more common dog and cat parasites that can transmit disease-causing organisms to humans are fleas, ticks, hookworms, tapeworms, roundworms, Giardia, and Toxoplasma, according to Hehr.

“We would ideally like to prevent them from having the chance to antagonize your pet or cause illness in the first place,” she said. “Not only can external and internal parasites cause your pet physical discomfort; they can also cause severe skin issues, as is common with flea allergies, or even cardiovascular complications that may lead to death, as is the case with advanced heartworm disease.”

“That’s why parasite prevention is so key to keeping your pet happy and healthy,” Hehr said. “It's also important to prevent parasitism in pets so we can minimize any potential exposure to the humans they share a house with, or in many cases, a couch, bed, or even a pillow.”

There are many preventive medications that protect pets from these nasties – both for application to the skin or orally. Most flea prevention products kill adult fleas once the insects contact your pet. Some tick prevention products kill biting ticks, while others prevent ticks from biting in the first place, which is the preferred method, Watkins said.

“It’s important to have a conversation with your veterinarian to choose preventives that work best for you and your pet,” she said. “It’s also important to use prevention year-round. Ticks can be active at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the interior of your home can create a great haven for fleas and ticks to survive.”

“Avoid using over-the-counter products, as they are often less effective than the prescription preventives you can get from your veterinarian,” Watkins added, saying: “It’s more important to select a product that is safe, effective, and fits your lifestyle to ensure it is given correctly and regularly.”

Emerging Pet and Human Disease Threats

There are several emerging threats to pets, military working dogs, and people that come from vector-borne diseases, many of which come from ticks expanding their geographic territories as the climate changes, Hehr said.

Babesiosis is a tick-borne disease that is increasing in prevalence in both dogs and humans in the United States and in Europe,” Hehr said. “But neither dogs nor humans should be implicated as causing babesiosis in the other, should either or both contract it from ticks. This is because the species of tick vectors and the Babesia organisms that cause disease are different for humans and dogs” she explained.

There is not yet an effective vaccine available to protect dogs against babesiosis. The only vaccine licensed in the U.S. for prevention of a flea- or tick-borne illness is for Lyme disease in dogs.

There also have been outbreaks of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in Arizona and other parts of the Southwest U.S. that have been linked to the brown dog tick, which prefers dogs, Watkins said.

Most cases were in children who got tick bites in and around the home, Hehr said.

“Interestingly, the detection of an increased number of dogs with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in a community can indicate that human disease prevalence there may also increase,” Hehr said. “This is because the same species of ticks spread the same disease-causing organism to both dogs and people, with dogs usually being at the frontline of a tick invasion.”

The Bottom Line

The most effective way to protect yourself and your pet from vector-borne diseases is to avoid getting bitten, Watkins said. “This involves a combination of protective clothing, repellants, and managing the environment, depending on the vector your wish to avoid.”

That means avoiding grassy, bushy, or wooded areas, plus animal burrows. Keep Fido and Fluffy from coming into close contact with critters who might have fleas.

At home, clean your yard, clean up leaf litter, cut the grass, and trim the hedges.

Outdoors, wear long sleeves and long pants treated with 0.5% permethrin to repel ticks. When you return home, check your clothing and body for ticks. Putting your clothes in the dryer on high heat for at least 10 minutes will kill any ticks that might be hiding in your clothes, Watkins said.

Don’t forget your pet buddy, Watkins said.

“When checking your pet, it is important to look in and around the ears, around the eyelids, under their collar, under the front legs, on the back and between the rear legs, on the belly, and between the toes and around the tail,” she advised.

Other Prevention Tips

  • Prevent mosquito bites by wearing long, loose-fitting clothing.
  • Use insect repellent, such as DEET.
  • Keep mosquitos away from you and your animals by treating your yard and using screens to stop those pests from entering your home.
  • Don’t use mosquito repellant meant for humans on your pets.
  • Talk with your veterinarian about repellant options safe for your animal.
  • Use heartworm preventives you can get from your vet. Heartworms are transmitted by mosquitos.
  • If fleas and ticks get into the household, control them through frequent vacuuming, sweeping, and washing of linens and rugs.
  • Wash pet bedding in hot, soapy water.
  • Place items in a dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill ticks.

Typically, though, these environmental control measures alone are not as effective as an integrated approach, which includes the application or administration of veterinary-approved flea and/or tick preventatives, Watkins and Hehr said.

“If you have been in a tick infested area, or have found ticks on yourself, there’s a very good chance ticks have also found your dog,” Hehr said. “If that’s the case, it’s a good idea to check your pet for ticks before bringing them into the house. Prior to tick removal, wear disposable gloves so you can avoid exposing yourself to tick saliva or body fluids.

“If ticks have not yet attached to your pet, they can often be removed with a fine-toothed comb,” Hehr said. “If they have attached, you can use a pair of tweezers to remove them by gently grasping its head and pulling it straight back, while attempting to keep the tick intact as you extract any embedded mouthparts. Don’t crush moved ticks but flush them down the toilet for disposal.”

And that’s the way to keep everyone safe.

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Last Updated: June 23, 2023
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