By Dr. Becker
The Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) has redesigned its website1 for pet owners and now features a set of maps you can check for information on parasite prevalence in a specific area.
If you're only interested in heartworm disease, you can select your state from a drop-down menu on the right side of the home page to see the infection risk for your state. If you'd like more extensive information, you can view the entire U.S. map.
If you choose the second option, you can find out the risk for several different diseases for dogs and cats individually, by state. The maps include infection rates for:
- Tick borne diseases (Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis)
- Intestinal parasites (roundworm, hookworm and whipworm)
You can also click on a state and see infection rates for individual counties, then hover your mouse over a county to see its name.
According to Dr. Christopher Carpenter, executive director of CAPC, "Our unique parasite prevalence maps provide localized statistics about diseases that affect dogs and cats in consumers' backyards, and we update them monthly."
Keep Your Pet Safe from Overuse of Parasite Preventives
I think these maps are useful for pet owners looking for general information about the prevalence of a certain disease in a certain location. The intent of the maps is to "… help drive clinic visits," according to Dr. Carpenter, because "People respond to and appreciate it when experts share pertinent information."
He goes on to say that CAPC hopes veterinarians leverage the maps "… to strengthen client relationships and consistently 'tap consumers on the shoulder' with facts that underscore the risk of parasitic disease that exists everywhere."
Since the Companion Animal Parasite Council is sponsored by a "Who's Who" list of major veterinary drug manufacturers, I think it's safe to assume the real intent of the maps is to get pet owners to buy into the belief that every dog and cat in the country should be on parasite preventives year-round.
And while I agree pet owners appreciate learning information pertinent to the health of their furry family members, I think it's extremely irresponsible of veterinarians to encourage the overuse of parasite preventives. These drugs, like all drugs, have side effects.
Just because a drug is used as a preventive doesn't automatically put it in the category of "better safe than sorry." This is a lesson the traditional veterinary community is slowly learning about vaccines. Every single thing we put into or onto an animal should be carefully assessed to insure its benefits outweigh its risks.
And keep in mind that even pets loaded down to the point of toxicosis with chemical preventives still frequently wind up with pests and parasites. There is no absolutely foolproof method for keeping every single pet protected from every single pest.
Around this time last year I saw my first dog patient with Lyme disease AND heartworm disease – conditions she acquired while taking a monthly, year-round heartworm preventive drug AND a spot-on flea/tick preventive prescribed by her regular vet. This is a good illustration of the ineffectiveness of some of these drugs, as well as the fact that parasites are growing resistant to them because they are being overused.
Preventing Tick Borne Diseases
- In the spring, summer and fall, avoid tick-infested areas.
- If you live where ticks are a significant problem, check your pet for the little blood suckers twice each day. Look over his entire body, including hidden crevices like those in the ear, underneath his collar, in the webs of his feet, and underneath his tail. If you find a tick, make sure to remove it safely.
- Use a safe tick repellent like Natural Flea and Tick Defense. If you live in a Lyme endemic region of the U.S., your veterinarian will probably recommend you use a chemical repellent. Remember: it's important to investigate the risks and benefits of any medication before you give it to your pet. Natural repellents are NOT the same as toxic preventives … they are not a guarantee your pet won't be bitten by ticks….they only reduce the likelihood of infestation. So frequent tick checks are really important.
- Create strong vitality and resilience in your dog or cat by feeding a species-appropriate diet. Parasites are attracted to weaker animals. By enhancing your pet's vitality, you can help her avoid the ill effects of a tick borne disease.
Preventing Intestinal Parasites
- Puppies and kittens can get intestinal parasites from an infected mother – either across the placenta or from their mother's milk.
- Beyond that, most pets acquire intestinal worms by eating infected poop. So the best way to prevent infection is to make sure your pet's environment is clean and 'feces-free.' Pick up your pet's poop and make sure she doesn't have access to infective feces from wild or stray animals around your property or anywhere else outdoors.
- Whipworm eggs in the environment are extremely resilient and resistant to most cleaning methods and freezing temperatures as well. They can be dried out with strong agents like agricultural lime, but the best way to decontaminate a whipworm-infested area is to replace the soil with new soil or another substrate.
- Keep your pet's GI tract in good shape and resistant to parasites by feeding a balanced, species-appropriate diet. I also recommend either periodic or regular probiotic supplementation to insure a good balance of healthy bacteria in your pet's colon, as well as a good quality pet digestive enzyme.
- Have your vet check a sample of your pet's stool twice a year for GI parasites.
What You Need to Know About Heartworm Disease Prevention
According to heartworm preventive dosing maps, there are only a few areas of the U.S. where dosing your dog with 9 months to year-round heartworm medicine might be advisable. Those locations are in Texas and Florida, and a few other spots along the Gulf coast. The rest of the country runs high exposure risk at from 3 to 7 months. The majority of states are at 6 months or less.
Preventives don't actually stop your dog from getting heartworms. What these chemicals do is kill off the worm larvae at the microfilaria stage. These products are insecticides designed to kill heartworm larvae inside your pet. As such, they have the potential for short and long-term side effects damaging to your canine companion's health.
To reduce your pet's risk of exposure to heartworms, control mosquitoes:
- Use a non-toxic insect barrier in your yard and around the outside of your home.
- Don't take your pet around standing water. Eliminate as much standing water as possible around your home and yard by cleaning your rain gutters regularly and aerating ornamental ponds and decorative water gardens.
- Stay out of wet marshes and thickly wooded areas.
- Keep your pet indoors during early morning and early evening hours when mosquitoes are thickest.
- Make liberal use of a safe, effective pet pest repellent like my Natural Flea and Tick Defense.
If You MUST Use a Chemical Heartworm Preventive …
If you live in an area of the U.S. where mosquitoes are common and you know your pet's risk of exposure to heartworm disease is significant, here are my recommendations for protecting your precious furry family member:
- With guidance from a holistic vet, try using natural preventives like heartworm nosodes rather than chemicals. Make sure to do heartworm testing every 3 to 4 months (not annually) as natural heartworm preventives can't guarantee your pet will never acquire the disease.
- If your dog's kidneys and liver are healthy, try using a chemical preventive at the lowest effective dosage. This could mean having the drug compounded if necessary for dogs weighing in at the low end of dosing instructions. Give the treatment at 6-week intervals rather than at 4 weeks, for the minimum number of months required during mosquito season.
- Remember, heartworms live in your pet's bloodstream, so natural GI (gastrointestinal) dewormers, such as diatomaceous earth, and anti-parasitic herbs (such as wormwood and garlic) are not effective at killing larvae in your pet's bloodstream.
- Avoid all-in-one chemical products claiming to get rid of every possible GI worm and external parasites as well. As an example, many heartworm preventives also contain dewormers for intestinal parasites. Remember – less is more. The goal is to use the least amount of chemical necessary that prevents heartworm. Adding other chemicals to the mix adds to the toxic load your pets's body must contend with. Also avoid giving your pet a chemical flea/tick preventive during the same week.
- Follow up a course of heartworm preventive pills with natural liver detox agents like milk thistle and SAMe, in consultation with your holistic vet.
- Always have your vet do a heartworm test before beginning any preventive treatment. A protocol I put in place in my clinic last year is to run a SNAP 4Dx blood test every 6 months on dogs that spend a lot of time outdoors during warmer weather. The 4Dx tests for heartworm and tick borne diseases. Because parasites are becoming resistant to overused chemical preventives, the sooner you can identify infection in your pet, the sooner a protocol can be instituted to safely treat the infection with fewer long-term side effects.