What's Bugging Your Pet This Summer?



Written by: Dr. Chip Coombs

Probably the only thing that bugs us all the most about summer are…the bugs. Depending upon where you live in Canada, which insects bug you or your pet the most will vary. It could be the blackflies and mosquitoes, wasps or bees, or the ticks. The most worrisome of them all would be the ticks.

Blackflies first start to show up in the Spring, lasting well into Summer, when the snow melting creates fast running water that nurtures the black fly larvae. Fortunately, black flies don’t carry any significant parasites that are a threat to you or your pet. However, they can certainly cause local skin reactions. As pet owners, we can use products with DEET in them, but DEET can be toxic to our pets (causing skin irritation on its own, as well as vomiting and seizures, if the exposure is high enough). There are natural products that are safe for dogs, but the smell might not be appreciated by your furry friend. Lemon eucalyptus oil is effective, but the lemon smell can be off-putting to many dogs. Citronella, also quite effective, is used in anti-barking dog collars, so you can imagine that most dogs would find the smell as repelling as the blackflies. Your local pet store may carry a natural spray safe for pets that use geranium and soybean oil which doesn’t have the same noxious smell.

The same products usually work on both black flies and mosquitoes. Unlike blackflies, mosquitoes do carry the blood-borne parasite called Heartworm, primarily a problem for dogs. Heartworm has been with us in Canada for decades and most dog owners are very aware of its significance and how dangerous it can to your dog, should it be contracted through a mosquito bite. There are many preventive products available, both oral and topical. Some of the more recent topical products now have label claims to repel black flies and mosquitoes which is an added bonus.

Bees and wasps don’t carry any infectious agents, but they sure hurt when they sting. Some pets will have the same reaction that we would in terms of an acute allergic reaction with facial swelling, localized itching and, at times more severe, vomiting and breathing issues. Immediate removal of the stinger is a good start to treatment, if you are able, along with a cold compress to control the swelling. It is a good idea to have antihistamines on hand (i.e. Benadryl) and ask your veterinarian ahead of time, what dose would be appropriate for your pet should an allergic reaction occur. These allergic reactions can result from a number of different insects, so having something like Benadryl on hand in your first-aid kit makes a lot of sense.

Heartworm used to be the dreaded worry of pet owners, but we have lived with its risk for so long, that we tend to take it in stride. The newest and most worrisome risk today is being bitten by a tick that carries Lyme disease. Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria, called Borrelia burgdorferi. It can cause a number of different clinical signs, such as gait stiffness, shifting lameness, joint pain, poor appetite, and fever. The number one carrier of Lyme is the Black-legged tick. Canada has a number of different ticks and they are NOT all the same and most do NOT carry Borrelia. However, the incidence of ticks has risen dramatically in recent years and is very much more common than it used to be. It is important to realize that although not all ticks actually are carrying the Lyme bacteria, one should be safe and assume that they are until proven otherwise.

Your local public health officials will tell you what the incidence is in your area, but many critics feel that they are seriously under-reporting the true incidence to avoid causing excess worry amongst the public. The other challenge is that due to limited resources they have a hard time keeping up with the rapidly changing landscape.

Ticks are active at any temperature above 4℃, so they are a problem in the spring, all summer long and late into the fall. If your pet is bitten by a tick carrying Lyme disease, there is only a 5-6% chance he will actually develop Lyme disease due to his own immune system. If you combine that innate defense with one of the excellent preventive products that your veterinarian can provide (vaccines, oral and topical prevention) protection can be very close to 100%. Pet owners have nothing to protect themselves and more susceptible to Lyme than dogs. It is essential that when you come in from gardening, hiking or simply a walk in the woods that you do an immediate self-tick check. It used to be thought that it would take 24-48 hours for the bacteria to be transmitted from the tick being engorged. More recent research has shown it can be a mere few hours.

Summer bugs are a hassle, but they won’t be going away any time soon, so be sure to discuss with your veterinarian a prevention plan that works best for your pet.