Every dog at some point in their life will suffer with external parasites. These may simply cause a minor irritation or may lead to more serious illnesses for both your dog and yourself, and it’s important to keep these parasites under control. When considering how to treat parasites in dogs, prevention will always be better than trying to cure the effects as many of the treatments can in themselves be aggravating. Anti-parasite treatments may come as chemical applications or medicines, vaccinations or as natural preparations that you can make at home. Which you opt for will depend on the severity of the parasite infestation and your own approach to using pharmaceutical or natural medications.
There are four common parasites you can expect your dog to come into contact with: fleas, ticks, mites and sandflies or biting midges.
The flea is a common parasite that lives in most parts of the world and infests humans and animals alike. It has a varied diet feeding on the blood of many species and carrying disease and internal parasites along the way. Fleas are famous for carrying the plague and typhus into the human population and giving dogs allergic dermatitis and tapeworms.
The first sign that your dog has fleas is that he nibbles at his skin–the base of his tail is a popular place–or scratches around his neck and under his chin. He may even have signs of dermatitis. There will be fleas moving all over his body, but they will tend to congregate where he can’t easily reach them.
Once you suspect your dog has fleas, you need to inspect him to make sure.
- Roll him on his back and check his belly, groin and in the creases by his legs. You may see them moving around in the shorter fur, or notice red specks where he has been bitten.
- Look around his neck and at the base of his tail. You may see (or feel) what looks like grit. Take a pinch and place it on a tissue, add a drop of water and if it turns red that is flea poop.
Once you confirm he has fleas, its safe to assume your house is infested and you need to treat all your animals, your carpets and the bed he sleeps on. I have a steam cleaner that I use on my floors, carpets, sofa and beds routinely every week. Not only does it kill any external parasites that might be lurking there, it also kills those bacteria that cause the ‘doggie smell’ in the house. I also drop a little lavender essential oil in my laundry which makes my sheets and blankets parasite free and smelling nice. Please note that fleas are very sensitive to temperature and must live within the range 70°F to 85 °F (21°C to 30 °C) and with a humidity of 70%. So, washing in hot water and using a dehumidifier in your house will not allow them to survive.
Now over to treating your dog:
First bathe your dog using an anti-flea shampoo then treat with a flea preventative medication suitable for his size and age. Your vet or local pet store is likely to stock anti flea collars or a liquid that you rub on the back of their neck. All these products contain insecticide and although they are mostly safe, it is possible that your dog will have an adverse reaction to them and extra care should be taken when choosing a product for a senior dog, a puppy or pregnant or nursing bitch so read the manufacturers’ label and take advice from your vet or pet store.
If you are worried about the chemicals in dog shampoo, you can make your own shampoo at home:
Home-made Flea Shampoo
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup liquid castille soap
2 cups water
Add a few drops of lavender essential oil
- Wash the dog making sure you produce a lather of the soap. Leave for 5 minutes before washing off with clean water. Note that you won’t actually drown the flea when you bathe your dog as fleas can survive for up to 24 hours in water, but the added soap will help to break down the fleas exoskeleton and it will eventually dehydrate. In the meantime, the process of washing in soap will cause the flea to release its hold, drop off your pooch’s skin and get flushed down the drain with the waste water. Using a comb through the fur during the bath will aid in this process.
- Do not wash the dog more than once a month as you run the risk of drying out the skin.
Bathing alone is not enough to keep your dog flea-free. You need to use some form of chemical or natural prevention medication too. As I mentioned before, there are plenty available to purchase from your vet, local pet store or even online, but if you wish to try something more natural then make up a spray or collar for your dog.
Home-made Anti-Flea Spray
An easy way to prevent fleas on your dog is to make up the following solution and put it into a small spray bottle that you can buy cheaply from most dollar shops. As a base for the spray I use 1 cup Apple Cider Vinegar which will balance the dog’s pH levels on his skin and make it an unsatisfactory environment for the flea to live. To this I add 2/3 cup water and 1/2 tsp salt (salt will dehydrate the flea and help to kill it). Now add an essential oil of your choice. You can use citronella, eucalyptus, tea tree, peppermint or rosemary as they all repel fleas. Spray this mixture directly onto your dog and onto its favorite sleeping places every few days during peak flea season and once a week otherwise.
Now, my dogs hate sprays and when they see me approach with one, they run away and hide until they think I’ve forgotten. So, I have taken to spraying the solution onto their brush as I groom them or onto my hands – they love being stroked so I get plenty of opportunity to get the solution onto their skin.
Home-made Anti-Flea Collar
As an alternative to spraying you can make a collar for them to wear. Simply make or buy a bandanna and soak it in the anti-flea solution, let it dry and tie it around your pups neck. It will keep the fleas away and make him look very fashionable at the same time.
I once worked with a Russian woman called Natalia, who used to recommend vodka for any ailment: if I complained of a headache, she told me to soak a cloth in vodka and put it on my head, a sore throat a vodka soaked cloth on my throat, and dog fleas? You’ve guessed it–drop a few drops of unflavored vodka onto your dog’s voilà.
And you know what…all these do work!
One of the biggest pleasures is taking your dog for a nice long walk through the countryside. Most time you can let him run free off the lead and enjoy sniffing, running and letting the long grasses tickle his belly, but this type of freedom comes with a price and your dog runs the risk of picking up ticks along the way. Ticks are most common in the Spring and Autumn, but can be found at any time of the year, especially where livestock has passed through the field. Ticks are a much bigger problem for your dog than fleas as they can cause anemia (due to excessive blood loss or babesiosis), tick paralysis, Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Powassan Encephalitis, ehrlichiosis, and anaplasmosi. Some of these diseases will resolve themselves once the tick has been removed, some, like ehrlichiosis, may remain low grade and the owner may not realize that the dog is ill. Others, like Lyme Disease, will only make up 10% of dogs sick, but for those that are affected it can be fatal. And of top of this, these diseases can be transmitted to humans who can become seriously ill themselves.
The best approach to treating ticks is to prevent them.
- Don’t walk your dog through long grass during the high tick season or if sheep have been in the field.
- Use a tick collar.
- Check your dog after returning from your walk and remove any ticks that are still crawling across the surface of the fur. Use gloves or tweezers to pick up the tick so you don’t risk being bitten yourself. Make sure you kill the tick by dropping it into alcohol or squishing it.
If you don’t catch the tick fast enough, it will attach itself to the dog’s skin and eventually bury itself into the subsurface. At this point it becomes more difficult to get rid of.
- You must NOT pull the tick out with your fingers as you risk the mouth parts breaking off and staying embedded in the skin which can then become infected.
- To safely remove the tick you can use a specialist tick picker or pointed tweezers. Make sure you have a clear view of the tick and remove it in one piece.
- After removal, rub some alcohol on the area or better still some medical iodine to prevent infection.
Most times your dog will have no more than a handful of ticks, but sometimes he can have a much bigger infestation. A few years ago, I boarded my dogs at the kennels while I went on a work trip abroad. The place came highly recommended and it was in a beautiful mountain location with lots of space for the dogs to exercise. When I picked them up after a few days, I was greeted with the news that they all had a few ticks…when I got home and checked, a few turned out to be more than a hundred. It took a very long time to remove all the ticks and some had already embedded under the skin. If this happens to your dog, visit your veterinarian who will be able to give you a tablet that will kill the ticks and they will drop off the skin naturally and without any trauma to your pet. Any that have already embedded will be mummified and absorbed, but you will need to keep a close eye on your dog and report any unusual symptoms or signs of illness to yur veterinarian. This tablet is not an option that is recommended by the vet for regular use as the insecticide it contains can be mildly toxic to the dog too, but sometimes the risk is worth it when the alternative could be far worse.
As I said earlier, prevention is always better than cure and you can use natural remedies to protect your dog from ticks: apple cider vinegar, eucalyptus and cedar oil will all repel ticks and kill them too. Dilute in water and put in a spray bottle or impregnate your dogs collar.
Mites are tiny parasites that live burrowed into the skin. They cause itching and hair loss, mange, scabies, ear mites and walking dandruff. Most of the time the dog and mites can co-exist without any problems, but if the infestation becomes too great, the dog’s immune system is low, or there is secondary infection caused by scratching, you must do something about it. Mange is highly contagious and can transfer to humans. Although the mite cannot complete its life cycle on a human it will create scabies which is extremely itchy and may cause secondary skin infection and scarring from scratching.
Many people complain of being allergic to dogs and cats and this may be due to a mite allergy.
Treating your dog for mites is easily done with an anti-parasite shampoo. You can buy one from your vet or pet shop or you can make your own using apple cider vinegar and natural honey. If your dog’s skin has become badly infected you may need to get an antibiotic treatment from your veterinarian. Prevention is the better solution and keeping your dog’s immune system high with good quality food, plenty of exercise and attention to any illnesses ‘doing the rounds’ will help his natural immunity to kick in and keep the mites under control.
The sand fly is a colloquial name given to any tiny blood sucking fly or midge. They are found in many parts of the world and can transmit serious diseases to both humans and dogs. Leishmaniasis is a parasitic disease carried by infected sand fly, it can manifest as a skin disease with lesions, hair loss, dermatitis, chapped foot pads or muzzle, lumps and nodules, or as a visceral disease with vomit and diarrhea, bloody stools, swollen lymph nodes, enlarged spleen, fever, anemia, weight loss, joint pain, muscle inflammation and renal failure–which will most likely lead to death.
The disease is common in the Mediterranean and in both North and South America and is occasionally found in parts of Europe. There is no cure for Leishmaniasis and the parasite will remain with the dog for life, although it can be kept in control and in some dogs the symptoms remain unnoticeable.
Prevention is the best approach to protecting your dog and in many countries vaccination is recommended, but there are other measures that you can also take particularly during the warm summer months when the sand flies are present. Be aware that sand flies are most active at night so keep your dog indoors to sleep or use a protective net over its kennel. Having lived in the Mediterranean, I am only too aware at how easy it is for sand flies to enter the home even with netting in place and the only way to keep them out is to close the windows and switch on the air conditioning. Despite their name, sand flies are not just found in sandy areas but also will be found in gardens and wooded areas. They tend to fly close to the ground so if your dog must sleep outside, raise its bed off the ground.
The best protection against sand flies is an insect repellent. You can choose a collar that will protect against fleas, ticks and sand fly and vaccinate against leishmaniasis.
External parasites are at best annoying for your dog and can cause them to scratch until the skin becomes infected. At worse parasites can carry diseases that cannot only be fatal for your dog but can give you serious illness too. It is important to learn how to recognise and how to treat parasites in dogs to ensure that you keep your whole household safe and infestation free.