Back on Track with Parasite Control

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The annual spring kickoff of flea, tick, and heartworm season may seem like business as usual for many practices. Still, clinic staffs are wrong to assume that clients have remembered their recommendations for parasite control.

Despite their human’s best intentions, pets are going to pick up parasites at some point in their lifetime. Well-informed pet owners who are aware of what signs to look for and understand the importance of testing and prevention can keep parasite problems to nothing more than a simple, quickly resolved irritation versus a life-threatening condition if left untreated. With many of the same parasites that plague dogs and cats able to infect and transmit diseases to humans, it’s vital to both pet health and public health that veterinarians educate their customers about the seriousness of internal and external parasites.

Fleas, ticks, and heartworms should be part of every wellness conversation with pet owners this time of year. These conversations give veterinary staff the opportunity to discuss the many other parasites that might threaten their pets. According to the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) research, client awareness of intestinal parasites is low, and knowledge of the risks of zoonotic transmission is even lower.

Asking questions

All pets should be tested at least annually for intestinal worms, but asking questions about the pet’s lifestyle (does the pup go to the dog park regularly where it could be exposed to infected feces? Is the cat an indoor/outdoor pet that may hunt infected rodents?) allows the clinic staff to recommend more frequent testing and preventives if needed. Besides keeping your customers stocked with dewormers and supplies for fecal tests, you can direct them to sources for client handouts or web links to help them educate their patients about parasite prevention.

Ear mites (Otodectes cynotis) can infect dogs, rabbits, and ferrets but are most common in cats, with up to 85% of cases of feline otitis externa attributed to ear mites. Pets who scratch their ears, shake their heads, have waxy debris, inflamed ears, or rashes on the skin around the ears should all be checked for ear mites. They are transmitted through contact with other infected animals, so multi-pet households and dogs who mingle with their buddies at the dog park or daycare should be checked regularly. Be sure you’re familiar with the many treatment options for ear mites, from daily topicals to injectables (Ivermectin) and single-use products (MilbeMite, Revolution, Advantage Multi, Simparica, and Bravecto), so you can discuss which work best for your customers.

Toxoplasmosis (Toxoplasma gondii) is a parasitic disease that affects most animals. Still, cats are the only animal in which the parasite can complete its life cycle and potentially be transmitted to people. Cats become infected by eating the immature forms of the parasite within the organ or muscle tissue of other infected animals such as mice. A small number of infected cats develop diarrhea or respiratory problems, but the majority never show symptoms. Toxoplasmosis can be a serious disease in humans with compromised immune systems. It may cause damage to developing babies of pregnant women, so those cat owners need to prevent their pets from hunting and avoid contact with cat feces while cleaning litter boxes or gardening.

Giardia and coccidia are both single-celled parasites that live in the intestines. Pets are typically infected when they ingest water or soil contaminated with feces. Older pets may show no symptoms, but the most common for either parasite is diarrhea. If severe, it can quickly lead to death in young puppies or kittens, so they should be tested regularly.

Filling the knowledge gap

The annual spring kickoff of flea, tick, and heartworm season may seem like business as usual for many practices. Still, clinic staffs are wrong to assume that clients have remembered their recommendations for parasite control or that they’ve lost the preventive business to online orders and don’t need to mention it. There’s a good chance your customers have new, first-time “pandemic” pet owners who have acquired a companion in the past year, have serious knowledge gaps, or have been given misinformation, and are looking to their veterinarian for advice on the best products and protocols.

I experienced this firsthand recently when a co-worker told me she and her husband were purchasing a Labrador puppy and asked for my advice on health and veterinary care. She and her spouse have done what every new pet owner should do – researched breeds, thoroughly vetted and visited the breeder, watched training videos, studied nutrition labels, asked for time off when they bring the puppy home – but when I mentioned being sure to give the puppy heartworm preventive, she had no idea what I was talking about. She knew nothing about how heartworm is transmitted, the seriousness of the disease and how prevalent it is in our area, or how easily it can be prevented. Lesson learned: never assume!

At this time last year, many clinics were forced to delay or postpone annual heartworm tests due to Covid-19 restrictions. The American Heartworm Society (AHS) recommends veterinarians revert to established guidelines this year. If tests were delayed, they should be rescheduled as soon as possible to get pets back on their annual screening program. If any lapse in giving preventive occurred, the AHS recommends a follow-up test six months later.

This is a great time for clinics to contact those customers and get them back on track this year. At the same time, checking in with new pet owners to answer questions and provide information will strengthen customer loyalty. An excellent resource to recommend – and to use yourself – is the CAPC website: The Parasite Prevalence Maps show infection risks throughout the country; the free Parasite ID app has images and information on 100-plus internal parasites. The Quick Product Reference Guide is a comprehensive list of products and their indications. Bookmark it now! The CAPC’s pet owner website is

Educating pet owners about the dangers of parasites and vector-borne diseases to both humans and animals plays a critical role in our industry. Helping your veterinary customers provide the best products and information for effective parasite prevention and treatment gives pet owners the ability to protect their entire family and become loyal, appreciative customers.

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