Heartworm, Fleas and Ticks. Oh My!

           The south is always warm!  While this means we have no uses for ski jackets, it also means mosquitoes, fleas and ticks are out with us as well.

heartworm test cartoon

           We will describe these three parasites in this entry.  Heartworms are parasites that are spread by mosquitoes.  A mosquito bites an infected dog or cat, will fly around for a bit and then bite your pet.  The baby heartworms will then crawl into your pet’s skin and begin a very long journey to the heart.  Once in the heart, the worms will begin having their own babies and spreading it through your pet’s veins.  A mosquito comes along to continue the process on to the next dog or cat.  Heartworm disease is an EXTREMELY serious illness.  There are some parts of the country where it is not as prevalent like the northwest, however, in Georgia, it is a year around problem.  It can take upwards of 8 months for a baby to develop into an adult!  The major issue with heartworms for owners is: YOU CAN’T SEE THEM!  You will have no idea your pet is infected with heartworms.  There are physical signs that will begin to manifest the longer the pet has heartworms, but you can’t physically see them.  If left untreated, the pet will develop heart failure.  We find out they have heartworms with our yearly heartworm test.  This tests for the ADULT FEMALE worm.  We do not have a test for Male worms.  This is rarely an issue as we will usually have multiple worms.  We test dogs every year regardless whether or not they have been on prevention.  This is to ensure the dog is still heartworm free before continuing medication.  The companies guarantee their products, but only with a heartworm test so we can confidently say the patient was heartworm negative before starting the product or has tested negative previously while on the product.  Every single dog and cat in Georgia is at risk for heartworms!  It does not matter whether your dog/cat is inside and never goes out, mosquitoes are everywhere.  Mosquitoes can get into the house and bite your pets.  Yes, outdoor dogs/cats will be exposed to more mosquitoes and at a higher risk, but small dogs can still be exposed and it only takes one adventurous mosquito to infect your pet.

how to remove tick

             Now we can move on to the creepy-crawlies we can see: Fleas and Ticks!  These little things are nasty and can be very stressful to deal with.  Fleas are worse than ticks.  Ticks are very slow moving and can be removed.  (Side note: NONE of the “wive’s tales” of removing ticks work i.e. blowing out a match and touching the back end, smothering it in nail polish remover, etc.  The ONLY way to remove a tick is to get some tweezers and grab the tick as close to your pet’s skin as possible and pull straight and slowly.  Pull parallel to the tick, if you twist or turn you will tear the tick and leave the head behind.)  There are some infectious diseases that your pets can pick up from ticks, but in general the ticks are just a nuisance (and gross when they fill up and rupture!).
             Fleas can become a major problem very quickly.  The momma flea can begin laying eggs as soon as 24 hours after feeding on your pet.  She can then lay 40-50 eggs per day!  Most of the fleas are out in the environment so you won’t see many of them on your pet.  You may only see a couple here and there.  Your pet may also start chewing at the area above their tail base and begin to lose hair.  If your pet is losing hair above the tail base, it is almost ALWAYS flea related, even if you don’t see fleas on your pet.  Once we have a flea issue, it can take up to 3 months to get it under control.  This is because of the life cycle and development of the fleas.  Too many times owners will see fleas and use one months worth of treatment and become frustrated that they still have fleas next month.  You need continuous treatment for at least three months before we can start to say the fleas in the environment are taken care of.

Heartworm prevention

              Prevention is key, especially when it comes to heartworms and fleas/ticks. There are many options for prevention of heartworms. There are monthly chewables and an injection for dogs. For cats, a monthly topical is best at preventing heartworms and is very easy to apply. The best option for flea and tick control we have now is a 3 month chewable. There is also a monthly chewable and topicals.


Heartworm Treatment: This is different from the prevention you give monthly or every 6 months if you use the injection. This is the actual treatment for killing adult heartworms. This is very risky because as you kill the adult heartworms, they have nowhere to go. The body must therefore get rid of the dead pieces. There is a risk of a piece of dead heartworm breaking off and going to your pet’s lung. Keeping your pet as calm as possible is the most important part of treatment to try and decrease the chance of that happening. The risk of the treatment is less than the risk of not treating at all. This treatment is only approved for dogs, we have no treatments for cats.

survive fleas
Flea Treatment: Treatment for your pets is the most important first step. ALL of your pets. This means your dog AND cat. If you feed it, it needs flea prevention. The next step is vacuuming as much as you can tolerate. This will help you to get the babies and eggs out of the environment. Vacuuming carpet and other surfaces. If it’s not cement, it needs to be vacuumed. Washing the pet’s bedding and pulling up couch cushions if the pet sits on the couch are other areas people tend to forget about. Sprays are ok for certain areas and the yard. Outside treatments don’t last as long because they wash out of the dirt pretty quick. You will likely still see fleas on your pet even while the treatment is still effective. These preventatives are not invisible shields that keep fleas from jumping on your pet. The fleas have to jump on, absorb the toxin and then they will die. If it’s a product your vet trusts, you just have to follow the application timing precisely and keep cleaning and monitoring for another animal bringing in more fleas(another cat, opossum, raccoon).

Additional information can be found by clicking on the links: