We Asked A Vet About All Things Parasites: Fleas, Ticks, Heartworm & More

In the first part of our weekly Ask A Vet series, Pawp interviews Dr. Laura Robinson on Instagram Live about vaccines, fleas + ticks, heartworm, and more. The questions we asked came from the Facebook group Pets Health In Quarantine. If you’d like a vet to answer your questions, join the group and post. This interview has been transcribed and edited for length and clarity.

What Health Precautions Should You Take With A New Puppy? Which Vaccines Should A Puppy Get?

You shouldn’t have to worry about these things too much if you get your puppy at the right time: around 8 weeks. But if for some reason you get it earlier, you need to worry about things like deworming. Typically, puppies are dewormed every few weeks when they’re little because they can get parasites easily. They can get parasites from their mother’s milk, in utero, or from their environment as they’re exploring everything. So you’re looking at a pretty frequent deworming schedule when they’re little.

Usually, you’ll get a puppy between 6 to 8 weeks, though, and that’s when you start vaccinating. Usually, I wait until they’re closer to 8 weeks before vaccinating, especially with kittens or puppies, as they’re so tiny. I just don’t want to overwhelm their little bodies. So usually you start at 8 weeks and there are basically three different vaccines that I’ll focus on. Of course, there are other optional ones too, but these are the main ones we recommend.

  1. DA2PP - a combination vaccine that covers distemper, adenovirus-2, parainfluenza, and parvovirus. Puppies typically get this three to four times every couple of weeks, starting at 8 weeks up until 16 weeks. Sometimes they’ll get three or four depending on how you space it out.
  2. Bordetella - to protect them against kennel cough; it doesn’t completely prevent it, but it does protect them from the main type we see. I give that at 12 weeks.
  3. Rabies - to protect them against Rabies, which I give at 16 weeks.

They can actually vaccinate against coronavirus, rattlesnakes, lepto — all those things are territory dependent. Depending on where you live, your vet may recommend those as well.

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For your first visit to the vet, I always recommend bringing in a stool sample, whether a kitten or puppy. I’d get that sent out to check for parasites; I would say a third of the time I do that it comes back positive so definitely recommend that. There are some things that can be transmitted to you as well so it’s always good to do that. I usually do one more deworming when you get your puppy regardless of the fecal results too.

Typically, I get them started on a Heartworm preventative then, there’s no real reason to check them for Heartworms at that time, but getting them on a preventative and a flea and tick preventative is always good too.

How Early Should You Start A Dog On A Preventive Health Routine?

I would say ASAP. As soon as you get your puppy or kitten, bring them to the vet to get an overall big picture of health and go over things like diet and vaccine schedule with your vet. It’s never too early. I’d get them started on a Heartworm and flea + tick preventative on the very first visit.

What Are The Most Common Diseases Dogs Get?

Outside of Heartworm, parvovirus and distemper are definitely huge ones. Getting the vaccine can completely eliminate those. I think 15 years ago, parvovirus was running rampant and dogs were dying everywhere — it has a very high mortality rate — so definitely a good idea to get tested for those. Kennel cough is also really common, especially if you’re boarding your dog or they’re around other dogs. It’s like a hacking cough that they’ll have; it’s not usually life threatening but it can take months to completely get rid of. Vomiting and diarrhea are super common in puppies too — either from parasites or from other issues.

What Is Canine Distemper? What Are Distemper Symptoms?

Distemper is a really bad disease, it’s terrible to watch. It can attack their GI systems, their nervous systems, it’s like vomiting, diarrhea… they can get tremors, seizures, sometimes they don’t want to eat, they have changes in their eyes or skin, and sometimes get respiratory issues too. It really completely annihilates their whole bodies, it’s really sad to see.

It’s a virus so there’s no real cure as such, it’s really just supportive care as their immune systems go down a lot. So supportive care like protecting them to make sure there are no secondary bacterial infections. Have them on fluid, pain meds, trying to help their tremors, antibiotics, anti-nausea medications, trying to get them eating — those are the goals of treatment until they can get over it themselves.

Can Dogs Get Diseases From Fleas And Ticks?

Dogs can get diseases from fleas and ticks. These organisms live in your cat or dog’s system and bite your pet and give them diseases. They can also get tapeworm from eating a flea. The other stuff usually comes from a bite.

They are allergic to flea saliva; so even one bite can set them off into this crazy itching cycle. So if your dog does have a flea allergy, you want to make sure you get them on a preventative.

Does Flea + Tick Disease Depend On Where You Live?

There are a couple of different flea and tick diseases, and each is a little more prevalent in different parts of the United States. So if you just do a quick Google on “tick-borne diseases in dogs and cats,” it will give you really good maps of each of them. Depending on your area, you’re a little more at risk for different types of things. There’s also multiple species of ticks, so it does depend on your area.

What Are Tick-Borne Diseases In Dogs? What Are The Symptoms?

Different ticks give different diseases, so do your research. The main ones we see in dogs are Lyme disease, Ehrlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and Babesiosis. Most of these are tick diseases that attack different parts of the body, like blood cells.

Typical areas where ticks would be are forests, wet areas, the midwest, the southeast are the biggest areas for all these things — damp, marshy areas. But everyone is at risk no matter where they are.

Fleas typically don’t transmit as many diseases as ticks; ticks are definitely the worst one. With fleas, if they’re infested, that will come out as scratching, itching, usually around their tail base. Sometimes you can see evidence of flea dirt, which is basically crumbled flea stool.

Ticks seem like they would be easy to see, but they’re not — especially if your dog has a lot of fur. Typically, it’s a disease of exclusion as you won’t see the tick but it will bite and three months later you start seeing signs. Usually the signs are a little vague — poor appetite, limping, fever, it will show with blood work — anemic, pale gums, different bruising as it messes with how your blood clots. There are different tests, but sometimes it can be too soon in the process and you’ll get a false negative and you have to repeat it. There is a test called 4DX test, it tests for heartworm and four of the main tick diseases — we usually recommend doing that once a year.

How Do You Prevent Flea + Tick-Borne Diseases In Dogs?

The easiest way is to get them on a monthly flea + tick preventative; there are many different brands that offer this. You can get them on a monthly topical; it’s a liquid you can squirt between their shoulder blades. Frontline is usually what people associate with this topical one. There are also oral tablets that are chewable; there are some companies that offer one that lasts for three months so you only have to give it every three months.

There are a lot of different brands, so I would talk to your vet about what they recommend. I typically like the oral versions; they have a little bit more efficacy from the studies I’ve been reading. Supposedly some fleas and ticks are growing some immunity to the stuff that’s been around a long time. Like Frontline doesn’t work as well as some of the orals; sometimes vets will even recommend doing more than one if you’re in a high tick area.

What Should You Do If Your Dog Is Infected By A Flea Or Tick?

If you notice your dog has been bit, I would go in and get the 4Dx test I mentioned to see if anything comes up. Most of the time, I wouldn’t jump to conclusions that your dog got some horrible disease from the flea or tick bite. Especially with fleas, you’re generally more worried about the fleas themselves than what they’re transmitting. But I would bring it to your vet’s attention. There’s nothing you can do right away, just doing the test and monitoring for the signs. And if any come up, you can start them on antibiotics.

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If you’re going on hikes in wooded areas with your dog, it’s always a good idea to give them a once over on their legs, paws, and between their toes. Brushing helps. There are flea combs that can help too, they can get the fleas out or show you evidence that your dog has them all together.

What Is Heartworm Disease In Dogs?

Heartworm disease is basically what it sounds like; it’s a type of worm that localizes in the heart and lungs of dogs. They actually get that from a mosquito bite, so if you’re in a very humid area, like the midwest or southeast, you should look out for it. If you’re in an insect-heavy area and your dog is not on a preventative, they’re most likely going to get it. It’s that prevalent there — Kansas, Florida, Georgia — all those places.

It’s a little worm that can cause respiratory and cardiac signs. It shows up as a distinct shape on X-ray. That 4DX test can show if your dog is positive or negative, but that test is usually testing for a certain protein they admit, so the earliest time you can test for it is five months after that. It’s a little bit of a waiting game.

How Do You Keep Dogs Safe From Heartworm?

There’s a monthly medication you can give them as a preventative; there are chewable flavored tablets I give my dog once a month. There are a few different brands that do both flea + tick as well as heartworm in one oral medication monthly. You just have to do your research and see what you’re protecting against.

How Do Parasite Medications Normally Work?

Each one works a little differently; usually they attack something within the physiology of the tick or flea. For instance, Nexgard attacks their nerve cell channels and stops them from functioning. A lot of them work in that way, but each one is a little bit different.

Are Any Types Of Dogs More Prone To Heartworm?

There really isn’t an age or breed more prone to heartworm, it’s more your location. Just like people anywhere can get bitten by mosquitoes, it’s the same for dogs and cats. So if you’re in an area with more ticks and mosquitoes, get them checked more regularly.

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What Are The Symptoms Of Heartworm In Dogs?

This is a difficult one to just point to a few symptoms; there can be a few respiratory and cardiac signs. They’ll have a cough, slow down on their walks, show exercise intolerance, lethargy, or start tiring out quicker. You’re not going to see a mosquito bite, it’s really recognizing the signs and going to your vet to get a test done. With cats, it localizes in their lungs and with dogs, it’s more in their heart.

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