As a caring pet parent, you want the best for your dog. This includes keeping your dog safe from health dangers caused by parasites such as fleas, ticks, and worms. The problem is that heavy advertising about the dangers of worms and other parasites have influenced most of us to be overly vigilant.
Therefore, lots of dog owners administer common preventative treatments that are widely accepted but most actually contain harsh chemicals. This is overkill for dogs that are generally healthy and not infested by parasites. In fact, many conventional parasite protection products reportedly harbour more health risks than benefits for dogs.
In this article, we will alert you to the nasty side effects of conventional parasite products and point out other effective, but milder and natural alternatives to prevent and treat certain parasites.
But before we get into how to protect your dog from parasites and whether prevention is necessary, let’s take a look at the most common parasites that target dogs.
Are nasty little bloodsuckers that usually live on domestic dogs and cats. They feed on your dog’s blood but can sometimes transfer to humans. Fleas are especially troubling because they can transfer Dipylidium Caninum (flea tapeworms).
There are four stages of a flea’s life cycle, which takes about 2 – 3 weeks to be completed.
Symptoms and signs for fleas on your dog and how to spot them
If your dog scratches, licks, or bites themselves more than usual, you should take a closer look because this behaviour is a possible sign of fleas on your dog.
What should you look for?
The colour of adult fleas is brownish-black, but after feeding on blood they take on a reddish-brown colour. They are small, oval-shaped, and about 1.5 – 3.5 mm (1/16 to 1/8 in) in length. They have six legs, no wings, but they are very fast and can also jump very far.
If there are only a few fleas on your dog, you might not even be able to spot them. More often you would see their faeces which look like tiny black-brown dirt particles. You can do a simple test to find out. Use a cotton pad or paper towel. Moisten it and place it over these small dots. If it takes on a reddish colour, they are most likely flea dirt.
They are very small. Smaller than a sand corn. You probably won’t see them on your dog’s fur as they usually fall off. You are more likely to see them in your dog’s bed or on your sofa.
Flea eggs have the shape of a jellybean and are translucent to off-white, but they change in colour the older they get to a more white colour. After 2-3 days they hatch.
After they hatch and feed on blood they transition into the pupal stage. They form a cocoon-like shape which is sticky and protects them very well even from chemicals that you might apply on your dog to get rid of them. During the pupal stage, it is very hard to get rid of them.
How does your dog get fleas?
Your dog can pick up fleas from other dogs or animals or via the environment. Fleas have very strong back legs which allows them to easily jump on and off their hosts.
Like fleas, ticks also feed on your dog’s blood. The difference is that ticks can transmit serious bacteria and infections, like Lyme disease, which can even lead to death. Humans and dogs alike can catch diseases from ticks. Therefore, you need to be cautious as well.
How to spot ticks on your dog?
There are hundreds of different kinds of ticks, but they all have some similarities. Ticks have resemblances with spiders in the way they look. They have eight legs and the colour of females is reddish-brown to dark brown. When they are full of blood, their abdomen becomes grey-silverish to tan-brown in colour. A male tick’s colour is usually blackish.
The size of a female adult tick can vary between 2 – 6 mm when unfed. Males are usually smaller. Only female ticks feed on blood and can reach a size up to 10 mm when full of blood.
If the tick is already attached to your dog, you can feel it easily when on an obvious spot on your dog. Just run your fingers through your dog’s fur. A tick feels like a lump or bump on your dog’s skin.
Ticks are especially comfortable around your dog’s mouth, ears, armpits and under the collar, but they can be very sneaky and even be found between your dog’s toes. Therefore, you need to inspect your dog closely and everywhere.
It’s much more difficult to spot them while they are still running on your dog’s fur. You cannot feel them as they are not yet fed and therefore you need to look closely.
How does your dog get ticks?
Ticks are commonly found in long grass or bushes, woodland and heath areas, but depending on where you live, might also be found in your garden. Therefore, your dog will most likely get them when they are outside.
The 5 most common worms your dog can be infected with are:
Apart from the heartworm, the 4 other types of worms are intestinal parasites.
Symptoms of worms in your dog
Depending on the type of worm, symptoms might differ. In general, your dog might have a poor appearance or show signs of fatigue. Other symptoms might include:
Roundworms and tapeworms can be spotted in your dog’s stool, whereas other types of worms are not usually visible and require a stool or blood test by your veterinarian to be detected.
This kind of worm gets transferred by mosquito bites. It can take up to 7 months for larvae to mature once your dog is bitten by a contaminated mosquito. An adult heartworm can reach up to 30 cm (12 in) in length.
Heartworms dwell in your dog’s heart, lungs and surrounding vessels. Symptoms can include coughing or trouble breathing.
Reside mainly in the small intestine and feed on the blood on your dog’s intestinal lining. Hookworms are relatively small with a size of 2 – 3 mm (1/8 in), but they can ingest large amounts of blood. A common sign that your dog is infected by a hookworm is diarrhoea, perhaps with blood.
Roundworms might remind you of a kind of spaghetti in terms of their appearance. Their colour can range from white to light brown and they can grow quite large, up to 10 – 12 cm (4 – 4.7 in). Roundworms are the most common intestinal parasite in dogs, and puppies can get infected by their mothers before they are even born. Another symptom other than what was listed above can be a swollen belly (pot-belly).
Tapeworms comprise of multiple segments and an adult tapeworm can reach a size of up to 9m! (30 feet), while each segment is only about the size of a rice grain.
If your dog has tapeworms, you might see some of these segments in your dog’s bed or in their fur under their tail or around their anus.
These worms are named after their appearance, which resembles a whip with a thicker end on one side. Whipworms can reach up to 6 mm in length (1/4 in) but they are thin as a thread and they can cause inflammation in your dog.
How does your dog get worms?
Different worms can be picked up in different situations, but most commonly your dog picks up worms from other dogs or by polluted stool, water or soil.
But your dog can also get worms by eating contaminated meat, such as a rodent, swallowing fleas that carry the pathogen for tapeworms or puppies can get roundworms from their infected nursing mother.
Heartworms, on the other hand, can only be transmitted by mosquito bites.
The danger of conventional parasite control products
Animal rights organizations and holistic veterinarians have warned about the dangers of pest control products for pets and people alike.
Many of these products that you can find on shelves in pet stores or are administered by your veterinarian are neurotoxic chemicals that can cause seizures and may cause damage to the kidneys, thyroid, liver and spleen. Other risks include developing heart and brain diseases and laboured breathing. Some of these chemicals have been reported to cause neurological problems, gastrointestinal disorders, and organ failures.
Even though many of these chemicals are approved for use on pets, they are also connected to fatal diseases in humans such as cancer, neurological, and respiratory issues.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that conventional parasite treatments can be harmful, given that some instructions on these products require you to wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly after application to reduce exposure to the chemicals. Others advise you not to touch your pet for the next 24 hours and keep children away until the chemicals have been absorbed.
You might even be advised not to use some of these products if you also own a cat, as these chemicals are apparently only safe for your dog, but will kill your cat – even if not applied directly on your cat.
But keep in mind that your dog is absorbing the same chemical that you are advised to extensively protect yourself against even touching slightly.
Some dogs even need to be treated again after giving spot-ons, because the harsh chemicals can cause wounds on the applied spot as a complication of their use.
In 2009 consumers demanded stricter regulations for spot-on flea and tick products for dogs and cats after the Environmental Protection Agency received criticisms from pet owners reporting detrimental reactions after applying the chemical on their pets, varying from skin irritation to seizures and even death.
The above negative effects are obviously worst-case scenarios, and we do not want to unsettle you, but simply make you aware of potential risks and encourage critical thinking of your own about conventional pesticides.
So, if conventional products are so dangerous for your dog what else can you do?
Luckily, there are many things you can do that are safer for you and your dog to protect or treat your dog; in the event that your dog has been infected with parasites.
In the following section, we share tips and effective ways recommended by experts and holistic veterinarians, about how to treat parasites.
Before you use chemicals on your dog, try natural and non-toxic alternatives first. Going without chemicals is not just safer for your dog, but for you and your family.
According to holistic veterinarians, in general, the good health of your dog is the best prevention for fleas and worms.
Experts and organizations agree that a healthy dog is less likely to get fleas in the first place. The key is a healthy diet. Most commercial dog foods available in supermarkets are not beneficial for your dog’s health as they lack nutrients and contain ingredients that can even be harmful to your dog’s health if used over the long-term.
Animal by-products are one comment ingredient, which often contains the flesh of animals that had infections or other diseases and had been stuffed with hormones and penicillin, which can still be found in their flesh.
Other harmful ingredients in supermarket dog food include artificial preservatives, flavours and colours, wheat gluten meal and corn gluten meal, as well as corn syrup (sugar).
Almost as important as not feeding your dog the bad stuff, is feeding them the good stuff, according to Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). To develop a healthy gut and overall well-being, your dog needs fresh, whole and raw foods. Have a look at one of our previous articles, in which we talked about the basics of a healthy diet for your dog: The ABC’s of Feeding your Dog - A Guide for a Healthy Diet.
Work on your dog’s health first as prevention for fleas before deciding to use chemicals. Like Dr Conor Brady, founder of M. D. Dogs First, says: “I strongly advise not dosing a healthy dog with chemical flea treatments. If your child was to get lice, you deal with it. You don’t apply noxious chemicals that if a louse bit them it would drop down dead.”
What to do when your dog gets fleas?
There are some effective non-toxic ways you can try, before taking drastic measures in the form of chemicals.
For the homemade bath, simmer some orange or grapefruit skin for 15 minutes. Add a drop of either of one of the following oils: eucalyptus, lavender, neem or rosemary.
Prepare a bath for your dog and add the prepared mixture. Start with washing your dog’s head but avoid their eyes. You want to do so as fleas might try to climb on your dog’s head to avoid the water, but you can prevent this by washing your dog’s head first.
You can add an effective homemade agent to your laundry or for wiping hard floors.
For the mixture, add to hot water some apple cider vinegar, plus a few tablespoons of salt and baking soda.
If it needs to be stronger for fleas
Some dogs can experience bad reactions to just a single flea bite and therefore heavier flea control measurements should be applied.
Safer alternatives to flea pesticides are Insect Growth Regulators (IGRs) which can be applied to carpets and wooden floors, but not on your dog. However, some animals can have a severe reaction to IGRs and hence, these products should only be used if necessary.
Most conventionally trained veterinarians administer deworming products in the frame of routinely puppy care.
However, many holistic veterinary practitioners agree that a healthy dog can easily resist a certain level of parasites. In fact, a low level of parasites in your dog is much less damaging for your dog than some of the harsh conventional deworming agents.
The danger of worms – scaremongering?
Worms are heavily advertised as a great danger for dogs that must be prevented at all costs. Owners that do not regularly deworm their pets are considered irresponsible.
Yes, worms can cause serious sickness and even lead to death, but by the time you notice signs of your dog having worms, such as like weight loss, a swollen belly or an itchy bum, you would still have plenty of time to take action, says Dr Conor Brady.
Giving anti-worm chemicals to a completely healthy dog with no worms causes more harm than good.
Also, there are milder and natural alternatives that can be effective in worm protection and prevention.
Natural wormers – Foods to get rid of worms
Anti-helminthics are great worm preventatives, but they can also serve as a treatment for a dog that already has worms.
Effective and mild worm preventatives comprise a small piece of fresh garlic every other day. But make sure to dose it right as too much garlic at once can be poisonous for your dog. Dr Brady recommends ¼ of a fresh glove per 20 Kg (45 lbs) bodyweight. The emphasis is on fresh. Only fresh garlic contains these health benefits.
Peel the garlic, mince, or crush it and let it sit for 10 – 15 minutes. This step allows creating the active ingredient allicin, which makes garlic so powerful.
Do not feed garlic to puppies under six months and do not feed it to dogs on blood thinners. Also, Chinese garlic needs to be avoided as it is high in arsenic.
Another natural preventative is pumpkin seed oil and pumpkin seeds. They are packed with cucurbitacin, which worms disgust.
If you need stronger treatment for worms
If you need something stronger to get rid of parasites, you can try VermX. It’s a very popular natural de-wormer for dogs.
You still should get your dog regularly checked for worms by a vet and introduce counter-measures in case your dog is infested by them.
If your dog has nasty, obstinate heartworm you can’t get rid of these with mild and natural solutions and you might consider going chemical.
But before doing so on your own, you might want to get the advice of a good natural veterinarian and see if you can get rid of it with black walnut hull or some wormwood first.
If you need chemical treatment for worms
If you decide that the above mentioned natural alternatives do not take any effect and you need to get more aggressive to get rid of parasites in your dog, please make sure to not overdose your dog.
An investigation of the EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) has revealed that especially small dogs, as well as old dogs, are more likely to show adverse reactions to these chemicals when the correct dosages for the dog’s composition haven’t been followed.
As mentioned above, ticks can be a transmitter of serious diseases, such as Lyme disease, tick paralysis and other tick-borne illnesses which can lead to death in the worst-case scenarios. Therefore, prevention is the best treatment for ticks.
Luckily there are a few things you can do to prevent your dog from getting these little nasty bloodsuckers.
Inspect your dog’s coat after walks in tick-infested areas
The risk for transmitted diseases by a tick increases the longer a tick is attached to your dog. This depends on the species of the tick but is usually about 48 hours.
Inspect your dog’s coat thoroughly after coming back from a walk in places where ticks thrive, such as high grasses, bushes and woodland.
They might still run on your dog or be already attached to their skin. If they are already attached, remove them.
How to remove ticks?
The best way to remove a tick from your dog is with a tick remover tool as it is important that you get the whole tick. If you grab it with your nails or a normal tweezer and quickly pull on it you risk that the tick’s head and pincers will remain attached to your dog’s skin. Therefore, the risk of disease transmission is still present.
So, grab the tick with the tool and slowly rotate the tool while pulling the whole tick out. That’s all. Anybody can do it.
Keep your dog’s coat short during tick season
If you have a dog with a thick and long coat, it might be very hard to sift through it for ticks. Especially if your dog’s coat is a dark colour. Therefore, it’s a lot easier for you to spot ticks on your dog if you keep your dog’s fur short during high tick seasons.
Homemade tick repellent – Essential oil blend
Combine the following oils together, mix well and store in a dark glass dropper bottle.
Apply 2-4 drops to your dog’s neck, chest, legs and base of the tail.
Be careful with essential oils on your dog and never apply the essential oil in a concentrated form, but instead always diluted as dogs have a much stronger sense of smell than humans.
Fresh garlic may help to keep ticks off your dog. The recommended amount of garlic that should not be exceeded is the same as mentioned above for worm control.
Since it may take a few weeks for garlic to build up in your dog’s natural coat oil, you need to start feeding garlic for tick prevention purposes well before the tick season starts.
There are many mild and natural alternatives to aggressive and damaging parasite control chemicals.
The best thing you can do as prevention measurement is to feed your dog a healthy diet. Dogs that are fed an organic raw food diet are proven to be less susceptible to parasites in the first place. They are also able to cope better in the event that they become infected.
In the end, every dog parent needs to decide what’s best for their dog by themselves. However, we would like to encourage you to think about this issue and conduct some research for yourself rather than just follow what the majority of other people might be doing.
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