Flea and Heartworm Prevention in Dogs
Few dogs can resist the call of the great outdoors. The boundless dispensary of sights, smells and sounds is the key to some of the most persistent joys a dog can experience, but also some of the most persistent risks.
Fleas and heartworms are two very common parasites that exist almost anywhere that shade, moisture and grassy patches do. No matter where you are in the country.
Left unattended, both can infect your dog and create far bigger problems than when they’re caught early. Here’s what you need to know about both pests, and what you can do if they show up on your dog.
Spotting fleas in dogs
Itching, scratching and general redness are the hallmarks of a flea infestation. As a pet parent, you’re probably already on the lookout for irritations like these. What you might not see at first glance — and are often telltale signs themselves — are the more subtle indicators:
- Excessive biting or licking
- Loss of hair
- Sore spots or scabs
You may even be able to see fleas with your naked eye. Most check in at around an eighth of an inch, and will often appear ant-like.
What if my dog has fleas?
Talk with your vet ASAP about treatment options to kill the fleas on site. Options may include oral medication, topical medications or sometimes a flea shampoo.
As importantly, start canvassing your house for places your dog may have either contracted or deposited fleas. Wash all blankets and bedding, take a mop to your floors and thoroughly vacuum all your dog’s favorite spots.
If the problem is serious enough, you may need to get exterminators involved. Fleas are invasive, fast-propagating species (there can be hundreds hiding for every one you uncover), and require swift action.
Flea bites are what actually cause the problems for your dog — the irritation from a nibble can lead to irritation and itching that eventually may progress to hair loss or infection.
They’re also the gateway to more serious conditions such as anemia (lack of blood), ultimately caused by fleas feeding on your dog. Fleas also carry diseases themselves, including tapeworms (ingested when the dog grooms themselves) and blood cell parasites, which are transmitted during a bite.
Spotting heartworm in dogs
Heartworms are often much less obvious in the immediate term, since they don’t usually show symptoms at the onset of an infection and arrive in a more subtle package via mosquito bites.
Symptoms will only present themselves when an infection has become very serious. Your dog should be evaluated promptly by a veterinarian if you notice your dog experiencing any of the following:
- A persistent cough
- Reluctance to exercise
- Decreased appetite
- Weight loss
If these signs are present due to heartworm infection, damage to the heart has likely occurred and timely treatment is essential. However, these signs can indicate other health issues in your dog as well, so work with your veterinarian to get to the bottom of what’s occurring.
What if my dog has heartworm disease?
It may sound intimidating, but heartworms are treatable in many instances. Once diagnosed, your vet will start the process to kill the worms and prevent further reproduction. While the treatment regimen is fairly complex, most dogs make a strong recovery in uncomplicated cases.
Complications bubble up when heartworms have a chance to grow and reproduce. Some worms have the ability to swell up to a foot in length, commonly causing damage to the heart and lungs in the process. Allowed to mature for long enough, heartworms may begin to obstruct blood vessels and cause resultant damage to other vital organs due to heart failure and turbulent blood flow. At this point, treatment may require surgery to physically remove the worms from the dog’s heart and lungs.
How to Prevent Fleas and Heartworms
For both fleas and heartworms, prevention is the best form of protection.
Most dogs can take monthly preventative medication for both parasites, sometimes in the same pill or topical application.
It’s best to talk with your vet about the right course of prevention for your dog. Just note, they’ll likely want to test your dog first for heartworms before giving them any medication, since an already-infected pet could become ill from taking the preventative.