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Animals thrive during the warm, active, and social summer months. Unfortunately, so do the pests that can affect their health. The good news? There are many preventive options, which means you can customize a safe and effective plan for your animal. "Pest control can involve a combination of approaches based on the pet, lifestyle of the pet and owner, and where the pet lives," says Melinda Miller, hospital director of Smith Ridge Veterinary Center, in South Salem, New York. She advises owners to use natural solutions whenever possible. "Chemicals were the easy prevention and treatment default for years, but they can take a toll on a pet's health," she says.
Fleas and Ticks
Fleas can hitch a ride indoors on your pet and make a home in your carpets, baseboards, and bedding (though fleas feed off a pet's blood, most don't live on their bodies). As for ticks, they climb tall grass and foliage, so when animals or humans walk by, ticks can crawl onto their skin and embed themselves. For many pets, flea bites cause only slight skin irritation. Other animals have a more severe reaction, which can include hair loss, lesions, and ulcers. A serious infestation can trigger anemia, especially in puppies and kittens. Fleas may also carry infectious diseases and parasites such as tapeworm. Ticks can transmit Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever (rare in cats), and Ehrlichiosis, a disease that can attack white blood cells, the spleen, the liver, lymph nodes, and bone marrow.
For flea control, vacuum daily (dispose of the vacuum bag or debris outside), wash pet bedding in hot water, and keep grass short. Consider adding beneficial nematodes (microscopic worms that feed on young fleas) to your yard. You can also sprinkle diatomaceous earth—a natural substance that causes fleas and ticks to dehydrate and die—indoors and out (look for it at pet stores). For fleas, a repellent spray that's made from herbal or food-based ingredients is one of the safest methods of direct intervention. Contact-kill sprays and shampoos aim to banish fleas (some target ticks, too), but they require multiple applications, and many are chemically based. The most effective treatments are chemical insecticides, which you apply periodically to an animal's skin. "These work against all life stages of fleas and ticks, but they're also the most toxic," says veterinarian Kenneth Fischer of Hillsdale Animal Hospital in Hillsdale, New Jersey. "Only use the minimum to get the job done." If you find a tick, use tweezers to grab the head where it entered the skin (don't squeeze the body), and pull it out gently but firmly. Then drown it in rubbing alcohol.
Itchy bites aren't the issue for pets. Dogs and outdoor cats can get heartworms from an infected mosquito, resulting in heartworm disease. The serious condition affects a pet's heart, lungs, and circulatory system. Have your pets tested annually for heartworms, reduce their exposure to mosquitoes, and use a monthly preventive as advised by your vet. "There is no proven natural preventative, and monthly oral preventatives are quite safe," Fischer says.
If your pet is scratching near her ears or shaking her head, these external parasites may be the culprit. Another indicator: An animal's ear canal may look like it's full of coffee grounds (it's debris from the mites). This very contagious pest is easily passed from one animal to another in a household (but not to humans). If left untreated, mites can damage the canal and the eardrum and cause permanent hearing loss.
Biting Sand Flies
These pests, which may swarm dogs (and their owners), leaving small bites, can put a damper on a fun day at the beach. Since health risks are minimal, go natural. Try filling a spray bottle with one teaspoon of tea tree oil, a natural antiseptic, and one cup water and then misting your pet and yourself before heading to the beach (sand flies hop from humans to animals, and vice versa). A shampoo with tea tree oil or a citronella collar may also keep the bugs away.