Fleas, ticks and intestinal parasites don’t take a break for winter. Though it is true that fleas may not be as active outdoors during the cold weather, they still survive on wildlife outdoors and your pet can pick them up. Ticks are also active during cooler weather and may be picked up easily while walking pets outdoors in January and February.
Ticks have multiple stages in their lifecycle, and though they need to bite a mammal at each stage, the larval tick can live for up to 540 days, while nymphs can survive up to 584 days. Adult ticks can live two to three years without a meal. Ticks that have had a blood meal (bitten a pet or human) and then come indoors on a pet or on clothing can survive for a month in your home before feeding again. Because both fleas and ticks carry other organisms, including Lyme disease, they are a threat throughout the winter months.
I have removed ticks from pets during single-digit days in the winter.
Pet owners in western Pennsylvania often discontinue or interrupt their pets’ wellness and preventive care during winter. Many have the misconception that ticks and Lyme disease are not a threat when it gets colder, and that heartworm disease and other infectious diseases are only a threat during the summer months. This is not the case. In my practice, I have diagnosed three new heartworm cases and several new Lyme disease patients during December and January.
Since tick activity and Lyme disease is prevalent in our area, it is recommended to continue tick preventives throughout the year, to protect your pets and yourself.
The bottom line for pet owners is that continued monitoring, testing and prevention is needed to protect pets and your family from external parasites and the diseases those external parasites carry to all mammals.
Internal parasite control is also a must. Many intestinal parasites can repeatedly infect your pet’s intestines from stored encysted larvae in the muscle tissue. You never see external signs of those infections, unless the infection is severe. Pet owners often disregard notices for fecal and parasite testing and tell me, “I would know if my pet has parasites because I would see worms in his poop or litter box,” but this is a misconception.
When your vet checks a fecal sample, she is looking for microscopic evidence of eggs of common parasites, including tapeworms, oocysts of protozoal parasites and the DNA of Giardia, roundworms, hookworms and whipworms.
Indoors pets can also contract worms, including Physoloptera (a stomach worm that is very hard to diagnose), by eating bugs or rodents that seek the warmth of a heated home during the winter months. My own cat got this parasite and became extremely ill recently.
In addition to protecting your pets and family from the dangers of fleas, ticks, Lyme disease, Bartonella, Ehrlichia, Anaplasma, heartworms and intestinal parasites, your vet will help you stay on the lookout for early indications of aging problems.
During winter wellness visits, the vet team will pay attention to subtle signs of muscle loss, indicators of pain responses and nutritional imbalances (overweight pets can be nutrient deficient). Sometimes pets can appear lazy and gain weight, with owners thinking it is because of a more sedentary lifestyle for the whole family. Unfortunately, being in the north, we can easily miss the onset of bigger problems, because pet owners are not trained to look for health conditions that begin with being less active.
January through March is a great time to schedule preventive care visits to your veterinarian. If your pet has not seen a vet in the past 6 to 12 months or longer, be certain to re-establish a wellness routine.
For owners who missed appointments during the early stages of the pandemic, be sure to get your pet’s wellness care on track. Your vet will advise you on current recommendations on everything from internal and external parasite prevention to dental health care, arthritis prevention and nutrition to help maintain your bond with your pet for years to come.
Another advantage of seeing your companion’s doctor for wellness care now is that, during busy times, your pet will be considered a regular, established patient. In many offices, it is more likely the DVM will be able to squeeze an extra patient in more readily when the vet has a good medical history (as compared to having to take an extensive health history and guess what your pet weighed last year).
Scheduling regular visits mean your vet can keep tabs on your pet’s weight and body condition (muscle vs fat), and be able to note early trends in physical changes more readily when your companion shows the first signs of illness.
She will also advise you of the best products for continued parasite control and supplements to address every life stage for puppies and kittens all the way through the golden years.
Dr. Cynthia Maro is a veterinarian at the Ellwood Animal Hospital in Ellwood City and the Chippewa Animal Hospital in Chippewa Township. She writes a biweekly column on pet care and health issues. If you have a topic you’d like to have addressed, email [email protected]