Vaccination against bacterial and viral diseases alongside effective worm, flea and tick parasite control is an important part of the routine healthcare of cats and dogs.
Vaccines protect against contagious, potentially fatal pathogens and diseases in cats, dogs and rabbits, saving millions of pet lives as a result.
Like many human diseases, some of the things that we vaccinate against in cats and dogs such as panleukopenia virus and distemper have become rare but in the absence of vaccination would re emerge very quickly. Other deadly pathogens such as Parvo virus, Leptospira and myxomatosis virus have remained more common because of wildlife reservoirs.
Cat flu viruses and Feline Leukaemia virus (FELV) are also still common because there are lots of stray, feral and other unvaccinated cats.
There have been two types of Leptospira that have been present in the UK for a long time and all dog vaccines protect against these. New strains from mainland Europe are now being reported in parts of the UK however and these require a special type of vaccine known as L4 vaccines to protect against them. Speak to your vet about whether your region is one where L4 vaccination for dogs is required.
Cat flu is airborne and myxomatosis transmitted via fly and flea bites, meaning that indoor cats and rabbits still require vaccination against these diseases.
Vaccines against deadly pathogens such as distemper, parvo virus in dogs and FELV in cats are known as ‘core’ and it is recommended that all pets have them. Others are ‘non core’ such as Lyme disease and kennel cough vaccines. This means in some cases, pets will be at risk through their lifestyle but not others. In other cases, such as kennel cough, infection is common, unpleasant and highly contagious but very rarely life threatening.
Like any vaccine, reactions can occur in pets. Some of these are mild such as discomfort at the injection site where others are more serious such as severe allergic responses. These problems are rare and although huge numbers of cases are often quoted on anti vaccination websites and social media, these are a tiny percentage of the millions of cats, dogs and rabbits vaccinated worldwide each year and kept safe as a result.
It is important to discuss vaccination with your vet and ensure that puppies and kittens get all the protection they need and then regular boosters throughout their life. Rabbits also need vaccinating against myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease.
Parasitic worms are very common in cats and dogs and can make them very ill. Some of them can also infect people so regular worm treatment of cats and dogs is important for both pet and human health. The three common types of worms in cats and dogs are roundworm, lungworm and tapeworm.
Roundworm: Toxocara is the most common worm of cats and dogs and lives in their intestines. It can cause health problems in people, particularly when larval worms migrate to the eye (ocular larval migrans). While many people are exposed to the parasite, only a few go on to develop disease (toxocarosis). Toxocara infection has been linked to many chronic illnesses including asthma, epilepsy and learning difficulties. With a few simple precautions however, pet owners can help to keep themselves safe.
Almost all puppies and kittens are infected by their mums at birth (puppies) or shortly afterwards via the milk (puppies and kittens). Some natural immunity develops at around 6 months of age, but infection is topped up through the cat or dog’s life through ingesting Toxocara eggs passed in the faeces or eating small animals that have already eaten the eggs such as birds or rodents. Some worms also hide in the tissues and are reactivate through the cat and dog’s life, so even indoor pets may be infected.
People are infected by accidentally ingesting eggs passed in the faeces. These eggs are not infective at first but develop over a period of 3-7 weeks.
Exposure occurs when soil is consumed when playing outside or gardening. They can also contaminate fruit and vegetables grown outside. The eggs are sticky and sometimes transferred onto objects that are placed in the mouth such as toys, pens or cigarettes. This is known as pica.
Infected pets are rarely ill although large worm burdens can cause diarrhoea or coughs. They are often the cause of the potbellied appearance seen in some puppies and kittens. While human infection can be more serious, regular treatment of cats and dogs for worms will help to reduce environmental contamination and reduce the risk of exposure. Treatment for worms should start at 2 weeks of age for puppies and 3 weeks of age for kittens. Treatment should be repeated every 2-4 weeks until 2 weeks after weaning, and then every month until 6 months old. The mum should also be treated at the same time. Adult cats and dogs should be treated at least every 3 months to reduce egg shedding. Pets that hunt, are on raw diets, or that are in contact with young children or immune suppressed adults should be treated monthly as this almost entirely eliminates egg shedding. This is important as the eggs can last for years in the environment. Ask your vets for advice on the most suitable worm treatment for your pet.
Picking up and responsibly disposingof dog faeces, thorough washing of fruit and vegetables, good hand hygiene and covering of sandpits to prevent cats using them as a toilet will all also help to reduce contamination risk.
Lungworm: Many of us will have seen adverts on the television talking about the risk of the lungworm Angiostrongylus vasorum to dogs and how harmful it can be. Foxes are the natural host for the parasite and appear to tolerate infection very well. Domestic dogs can also be infected without becoming ill but commonly develop a cough or other breathing problems.
More worryingly, a small percentage of dogs infected will develop blood clotting complications, neurological signs or die suddenly as a result of infection.
Dogs become infected mostly through eating slugs, snails and frogs. Some infected slugs are only a few millimetres long and may be eaten accidentally with grass or on dog treats and toys left out in the garden.
Although it’s not a very nice thought, some dogs like eating faeces and so do slugs. As a result, they can sometimes accidentally be eaten by poo loving dogs! This parasite is now present across the whole country but is very patchy in its distribution, being more common in some places than others.
Some vets and dog owners live in areas which have very high levels of infection and preventative treatment in these regions with a monthly worm treatment is vitally important to keep dogs safe. It is worth talking to local vets and dog owners to see if cases are occurring locally and whether your pet might be at increased risk. Your vet will also take your pet’s lifestyle into account with dogs that deliberately eat slugs and snails or that consume grass on a regular basis being at greater risk.
Not all worm treatments are effective against lungworm, so it is important to seek advice from your vet to which preventative treatment is best for your dog if required.
Tapeworm: Taenia tapeworms are large segmented worms that live in the intestines of cats and dogs, passing visible mobile segments containing eggs in the faeces.
Dogs are infected through eating raw offal or meat that has not been adequately frozen before consumption. Cats are infected through hunting and eating small prey. The health of pets is rarely affected by infection but if cows or sheep eat tapeworm eggs in grass or feed contaminated with dog faeces then it can lead to meat and offal condemnation with economic hardship for farmers.
A small tapeworm of dogs called Echinococcus granulosus is also transmitted the same way and can lead to large hydatid cysts forming in the human body if we accidentally ingest this tapeworm’s eggs. Dogs should be treated for tapeworm monthly if they are shedding visible segments, on a raw unprocessed diet or if they have access to fallen livestock to eliminate the risk of infection.
If cats are shedding tapeworm segments through hunting behaviour they can also be treated monthly to eliminate the problem. The flea tapeworm Dipylidium caninum is also a large segment shedding tapeworm of both cats and dogs. Flea control is the best way to get these tapeworm infections under control.
FLEA AND TICK PREVENTION
Fleas: Fleas found on UK pets are almost all cat fleas as they can infest a wide range of mammals, including, cats, dogs, ferrets and rabbits. Unlike lice, most of the flea’s life stages live off the pet in your home.
Adult fleas lay eggs which fall off into bedding, furniture and carpets. These then hatch into larvae which live on flea faeces or ‘dirt’ which also falls off the coat. The larvae develop into pupae which wait for a host to pass by. Sensing heat and movement the adults emerge and jump onto the host. People cannot act as hosts for cat fleas but can get bitten with itchy sores sometimes then developing, often below the knee.
Control of flea infestations is a lengthy process as the pupae are near impossible to kill. Treating the house with sprays containing insecticides and growth regulators, as well as daily vacuuming helps to speed up getting rid of an infestation, but key is treating all pets that might act as hosts in the house. They should all be treated with a product that will kill fleas before they lay eggs, therefore breaking the flea life cycle. If treatment lapses, fleas can start laying eggs again, so it is best to keep treating frequently enough to prevent flea egg laying and further infestation.
Fleas have long been considered to be a seasonal problem, but a combination of milder winters and our centrally heated homes means that fleas can now survive all year
round. Fleas can transmit a wide range of diseases including Bartonellosis or ‘cat scratch disease’ which is transmitted through flea dirt. Treatingcats and dogs throughout the year is therefore essential.
To avoid insecticides getting into waterways where they can cause harm to river life and bees, it is important that pets are not washed, shampooed or allowed to swim after application of a flea spot-on treatment or collar. The data sheet or your vet practice will tell you how long after application it is safe to perform these activities. It is also important to dispose of packaging that has contained insecticide and unused treatments responsibly.
Ticks: Ticks transmit many diseases to pets and people including tickborne encephalitis, Lyme disease and babesiosis. Ticks in the UK rarely live in houses but attach to people and pets that walk in tall grass, bracken and areas shared with deer, sheep and cows.
The increase in ticks and tick-borne diseases in people and pets is thought to be due partly to a milder, wetter climate allowing ticks to be active all year round as well as in their common Spring and Autumn feeding times. Increased time spent doing outdoor pursuits is also bringing us into greatercontact with ticks. We and our pets can still enjoy the great outdoors though by taking a few simple precautions:
● Most tick-borne pathogens take at least 24 hours to be transmitted after ticks have attached. Dogs and people who have been walking in pasture, tall grass or undergrowth should be checked for ticks at least every 24 hours and any found carefully removed with a tick removal device. Tick nymphs and larvae are just a few millimetres long and can easily be missed, especially in long haired dogs or cats that are reluctant to be examined!
● Squeezing, burning or applying paraffin to ticks will stress them, leading to increased likelihood of disease transmission. It should therefore be avoided as well as using blunt tweezers or fingers for removal.
● Once the tick has been removed don’t kill it by squashing it as this may help to spread pathogens. They can be flushed down the toilet or placed in spirit to kill them.
● A product that rapidly kills ticks or repels them should be considered for dogs and cats whose lifestyle put them.
For more information, please visit the website www.esccapuk.org.uk