Canine and feline parasitic diseases commonly cause harmful—at times life-threatening—illness. But, because these pests are microscopic in size, pet owners often underestimate their real and ever-present threat to companion-animal health. As summer temperatures rise, so do flea, tick, and mosquito populations—and the need to protect your pet. Learn more about the most common blood-borne parasitic diseases from our Creature Comforts Veterinary Service professionals’ guide, which describes parasite prevention, signs, and treatments.

Heartworm disease in pets

Heartworm disease is a life-threatening condition that affects pets in all 50 states. An infected mosquito’s bite exposes pets to immature heartworms that migrate to the heart and large lung vessels, causing damaging inflammation, blockages, and cardiovascular failure. Although dogs are the parasite’s preferred host, cats can also suffer heartworm’s devastating effects.

  • Prevention — You can safely and effectively prevent your pet’s heartworm risk by ensuring they receive parasite prevention medicine each month, as well as an annual heartworm test. Your veterinarian will customize your pet’s parasite prevention plan.
  • Signs — As the heartworms mature and irritate various cardiovascular structures, dogs experience coughing, exercise intolerance, respiratory distress, a pot-bellied appearance, and collapse. Cats may show no signs, or may display subtle asthma-like signs known as heartworm-associated respiratory disease (HARD). For some cats, the only sign is sudden death.
  • Treatment — Dogs’ heartworm treatment involves a series of deep muscular injections to kill the adult heartworm population. During the treatment period, your dog’s activity must be completely restricted to ensure the dying worms do not worsen vascular inflammation or form a fatal blockage. Unfortunately, no safe heartworm treatment is available for cats—making prevention essential. 

Lyme disease in pets

The black legged tick or deer tick (i.e., Ixodes spp.) transmits Lyme disease, a debilitating bacterial condition. When an infected tick bites your dog, Lyme bacteria (i.e., Borrelia burgdorferi) enter their connective tissue, and your dog develops various nonspecific signs. Because cats carry Lyme disease antibodies, their signs are not typically as significant as dogs’ signs. Because cats are relatively unaffected, veterinarians know little about Lyme disease in cats.

  • Prevention — You can effectively prevent your dog from developing Lyme disease by ensuring they receive year-round flea and tick preventive medicine. In addition, provide environmental management (i.e., remove leafy yard debris, keep grass mown) and manually inspect your dog’s coat during tick season (i.e., early spring to late fall). If you live in or plan to visit an area where ticks are prevalent, you should consider the Lyme vaccination for your dog. In addition, we recommend tick-borne screening tests as part of your dog’s annual wellness visit.
  • Signs — Dogs’ Lyme disease signs include shifting leg lameness, enlarged lymph nodes, swollen joints, fever, lethargy, and a loss of appetite. Some dogs show no signs—a good reason for an annual tick-borne screening test. 
  • Treatment — Uncomplicated Lyme disease treatment involves the administration of specific antibiotics. Severely affected dogs may require additional medication or treatment to support kidney health. Remember, early treatment offers your dog the best chance for a full recovery.

Anaplasmosis in pets

Anaplasmosis is a tick-borne disease, similar to Lyme disease. The most common anaplasmosis-causing infectious bacterial organism—Anaplasma phagocytophilum—affects your pet’s joints. The organism Anaplasma platys, transmitted by the brown dog tick, is less common, and decreases your pet’s platelets. 

  • Prevention — You can effectively protect your outdoor and indoor pet from anaplasmosis by ensuring they receive year-round flea and tick prevention medicine, and by routinely checking their coat for ticks. Annual tick-borne screening tests are useful for diagnosing asymptomatic pets and ensuring effective prevention.
  • Signs — Infected dogs may have signs similar to Lyme disease, as well as vomiting and diarrhea, or they may be asymptomatic. Infected cats may be lethargic, weak, feverish, and inappetent.
  • Treatment — Symptomatic pets with anaplasmosis have an excellent prognosis when treated with a four-week doxycycline regimen. Veterinarians do not treat asymptomatic pets who test positive for anaplasmosis on a routine screening unless they show signs later. Still, your pet’s best anaplasmosis defense is a rigorous prevention program. 

Ehrlichiosis in pets

Ehrlichiosis is another vector-borne (i.e., tick-borne) bacterial disease in which an infected tick bites and feeds on host dogs or cats. The rickettsial bacteria invade your pet’s white blood cells, replicate, and spread throughout your pet’s bloodstream, causing visible illness within one to three weeks after exposure. While some pets remain asymptomatic, others progress to subacute and chronic illness stages.

  • Prevention — You can protect your pet from ehrlichiosis by ensuring they receive year-round tick prevention medicine and managing their environment by keeping your lawn mowed and your yard free of leaf debris.
  • Signs — During the initial phase, dogs may be lethargic, feverish, and unwilling to eat. Blood work may indicate low platelets, or dogs may bleed easily. Progressive signs include complete blood count and blood chemistry changes, weight loss, bone marrow suppression, and, in untreated severe cases, death. Cats rarely contract ehrlichiosis, but their known signs are similar to dogs’ ehrlichiosis signs and include bruising, pale gums, bleeding, eye inflammation, and respiratory difficulty.
  • Treatment — Standard ehrlichiosis treatment includes a four-week doxycycline course. Severely ill pets require supportive care that may include blood transfusions, pain management, and nutritional therapy.

Protect your pet from harmful parasitic diseases by maintaining a strong parasite protection plan that includes year-round preventive medicine, annual testing, and parasite-discouraging environmental strategies.

To schedule your pet’s heartworm and tick-borne disease screening test, or if you would like to begin a parasite prevention treatment program, contact our caring Creature Comforts Veterinary Service professionals.