woman in purple sweater cuddling kitten outdoors in cold

Pet Lifestyle: Winter Prevention

Q: “My husband and I spend the winters here in New Smyrna and the summers up in Michigan. We bring our sweet baby, Peanut, a Peek-a-Poo with us. When we lived up north during the winter we never needed to keep him on flea or heartworm medications, but have been told he needs it down here in Florida even during the winter. Is this really necessary? I don’t like giving any unnecessary medications.”

A: I often get asked this question and northerners are often surprised at the answer. The short answer is yes, we do need year-round flea and heartworm prevention here in Florida. Here is why these parasites need to be prevented all year:

Flea Treatment and Prevention in Winter in Florida

The warm temperatures and humidity that attracts us to this area is also the perfect climate for fleas. The majority of our winter here (and even up north) does not get cold enough for long enough to kill them. When it does begin to get chilly, fleas will actually be more likely to be indoors, where they can stay comfortable in your cozy home and avoid the dangers of the cold.

Some animals will have obvious signs indicating they are having a flea issue, while others are not as bothered with this annoying parasite. Scratching, hair loss or flea dirt (small black fragments that look like dirt but is actually flea feces) are some of the first signs. When you begin to see fleas, it becomes much more difficult and expensive to correct the problem than preventing them in the first place.

Each adult female flea can lay around 40 eggs a day, producing hundreds in their short life span. The juvenile stages of the fleas are difficult to kill and can stick around in the house for a very long time, emerging to adult fleas many months later. Once a flea problem occurs it can take up to three months to get it under control.

Fleas feed on their host’s (your cat, dog, other animals, or even you!) blood. Animals with flea infestations can become anemic and lose so much blood that it can kill them. Not only can fleas cause intense irritation and itching of the skin, but can also lead to serious infections and health issues. When your pet bites at the itchy areas or grooms themselves they often ingest the flea. This is usually how they acquire tape worm infections. These intestinal parasites are often found by disgusted owners when they see the little rice like segments moving near the pet’s rectum or even whole squirming worms being passed. Yuk!

Preventing fleas and tapeworms has become very easy over the years. There are many very safe and effective products on the market, but some work much better than others. Consult your vet to determine which is the best for your situation.

Heartworms are acquired by mosquitoes when they bite your pet. Both cats and dogs can get heartworms and they can be quite deadly. Mosquitoes lay the larvae in the animal’s blood stream and over the course of six months these grow into adult worms, which can live up to seven years. The adults can grow to around a foot in length and many can be present at once. These worms live inside the heart, lungs and associated blood vessels. They can cause severe inflammation and damage to the heart, lungs and other bodily organs. If left untreated, this infection is often deadly.

Heartworm Disease and Prevention in Florida Winters

The southeast has a very high incidence of heartworm disease. One of the reasons is that mosquitoes are present year-round. Animals can acquire an infection in any month of the year, but it can take six months for them to test positive, as the test can only detect the adult worms! Scarily, even completely indoor animals can acquire an infection. Luckily for dogs, there is a treatment if caught early enough. The treatment is risky and it is much preferred to prevent the infection in the first place.

There are many different options for heartworm prevention. The most common form is oral heartworm “treats” given monthly, which most pets love. These have an added benefit of killing some intestinal parasites (some of which are contagious to people!).

We commonly see dogs who are not on heartworm prevention that not only acquire heartworms but intestinal parasites as well. For dogs who are picky and may be difficult to give oral prevention, there are other options such as topical or injectable prevention. Heartworm preventions are prescription medications given through your veterinarian. An annual heartworm test, or testing if there has been a lapse or change in medication, is essential to make sure your pet is protected.

Remember that prevention is key to all of these issues. It is safer and cheaper to avoid fleas, intestinal parasites, and heartworms versus trying to control the problem after an infection.

Dr. Tiffany Beischel is a local licensed veterinarian who is happy to answer any questions you may have about your pets. Feel free to call her at (386) 663-3989.

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