Vaccination against bacterial and viral disease alongside effective parasite control is an important part of the routine healthcare of cats and dogs.
By Ian Wright, partner at the Mount Veterinary practice, Fleetwood and head of ESCCAP UK & Ireland
With concerns about over treatment of pets, potential environmental contamination and vaccine reactions however, it is important to consider why vaccination and parasite prevention is still so crucial throughout the whole life of your pet.
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 distemper and panleukopenia virus have become mercifully 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 Leukemia virus (FELV) are also still very common because there are lots of stray and feral cats that are not vaccinated. Dogs may potentially come in to contact with parvo virus through fox faeces contaminating the environment. Leptospira is transmitted through water contaminated with urine from a variety of mammals including rodents, livestock and horses. Traditional vaccines protect against two strains of Letptospira (L2 vaccines). New strains of leptospira though have entered the UK leading to L4 vaccines being used. Some vets use L2 vaccines and others use L4 depending on the relative risk in their area. Cat flu is airborne and myxomatosis transmitted via fly and flea bites, meaning that indoor cats and rabbits are not safe from exposure and still require vaccination.
Like any vaccine, reactions can occur in pets. Some of these are relatively common such as localised swelling at the injection site but rarely cause problems. Other reactions such as severe allergic responses are rare and although large numbers of cases are often quoted on anti vaccination websites and social media, these are a tiny percentage of the millions of pets vaccinated worldwide each year and kept safe as a result. It is important not to over vaccinate though. Some vaccines such as distemper, parvo and cat flu are considered ‘core’ and recommended because the threat of infection is widespread and dangerous if contracted. Others are ‘non core’ such as Lyme disease and kennel cough vaccines. This means that some pets will be more at risk of infection than others depending on where they live and their lifestyle.
It is important to discuss vaccination with your vet and ensure that puppies and kittens get all the vaccines they need and then regular boosters throughout their life. Rabbits also need vaccinating against myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease. By making sure pets are adequately vaccinated, they can be kept safe from life threatening but potentially preventable 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 both for pet, but also human health. There are three common types of worms in cats and dogs. Roundworm, lungworm and tapeworm.
Toxocara is the most common parasitic worm of cats and dogs and lives in their intestines. It is well known for the health problems it can cause 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). More and more links are being uncovered to chronic illness such as asthma, epilepsy and learning difficulties however, by taking a few simple precautions, 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 though 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 when first passed but become so over a period of 3-7 weeks. Exposure occurs through accidentally (or deliberately in the case of children!) consuming soil containing eggs or contaminated fruit and vegetables. The eggs are sticky and sometimes transferred onto objects such as toys or pens that can be placed in the mouth.
Infected pets are rarely ill although large worm burdens can cause diarrhoea or coughs. While human infection can be more serious, a few simple precautions will help to reduce contamination and risk of exposure.
- Regular treatment of cats and dogs 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 (depending on the product) 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. Alternatively, the faeces of pets can be tested every 1-3 months to monitor for infection. This reduces drug use but may allow eggs to be shed between tests.
- Faecal testing annually is useful to check that preventative treatments are effective
- Picking up and responsibly disposing of dog faeces reduces egg contamination from faeces but also helps to prevent transmission of a wide range of bugs including food poisoning bacteria
- Cats love to visit allotments and kitchen gardens and daefacate on lovingly grown fruit and veg. These are still completely safe for human consumption if first thoroughly washed or cooked
- Washing hands before eating and after prolonged outdoor activity reduces the risk of many parasites being transferred from hand to mouth
- Cats will use sandpits as giant litter trays and then bury their faeces. Covering sandpits helps to prevent cat access when not in use
- Some egg contamination comes from stray cat populations so neutering cats with outdoor access and rehoming strays to loving homes will help to prevent transmission
Many of us will have seen adverts on the television talking about the risk of lungworm to dogs and how harmful they can be. These ads refer to the canine lungworm Angiostrongylus vasorum and highlight the potential for it to cause potentially fatal disease. 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 will develop a cough or other breathing problems. More worryingly, a small percentage of dogs infected will develop blood clotting complications, neurological signs, heart problems 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. It is important to seek advice from your vet as to which preventative treatment is best for your dog if required.
Taenia tapeworms are large segmented worms that live in the intestines of cats and dogs, passing visible and active 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 the have access to fallen livestock to eliminate the risk of infection. If cats are shedding tapeworms through hunting behaviour, these can lead to gut issues in large numbers so these should also be treated regularly to eliminate the problem.
flea tapeworm Dipylidium caninum also sheds segments that look like mobile grains of rice in the faeces of cats and dogs. They are infected through grooming fleas off their coat and people can also be infected if we accidentally ingest bits of flea under our fingernails or in our food. Flea control is the best way to get tapeworm infections under control.
FLEA AND TICK PREVENTION
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. They are wingless blood sucking insects but 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 nice warm 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. Treating the house with sprays containing insecticides and growth regulators, as well as daily vacuuming and hot washing pet bedding helps to speed up elimination of infestations.
The key though is treating all pets that might act as hosts in the house. They should all be treated with a licensed product that will kill fleas before they lay eggs, therefore breaking the flea life cycle. Our centrally heated homes means that fleas can now survive all year round. Treating cats and dogs throughout the year is therefore essential.
UK ticks can transmit a wide range of nasty pathogens to pets and people including tick-borne encephalitis virus and Lyme disease. Ticks that commonly live in this country do not infest 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, especially in the spring, summer and autumn. Increased time spent doing outdoor pursuits is also bringing us into greater contact with ticks. We can all enjoy the great outdoors with our pets though by taking a few simple precautions.
- The bulk of tick-borne pathogens take at least 24 hours after ticks bite. 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 and blunt tweezers or fingers should never be used for removal.
- A product that rapidly kills ticks or repels them should be considered for dogs and cats whose lifestyle put them at increased risk of tick exposure.
For more information talk to your vet or visit ESCCAP UK & Ireland www.esccapuk.org.uk for independent parasite advice.