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How to Avoid Pet Parasites

Each year, thousands of pets are welcomed into homes across the country. Pet parents know that part of having a companion pet means safeguarding the animal's health and well being. Ensuring the dog, cat, bird, etc., is free of harmful parasites and illnesses is part of being a responsible pet owner.

There are many microscopic parasites that can plague pets. In healthy pets, their immune systems may be able to ward off certain offenders. However, in most cases routine vaccinations are necessary to keep a pet healthy and parasite-free. Depending on the pet in the home, individuals should educate themselves about potential parasites, dangers and treatment.

Dog Owners

Chances are a dog will get a parasite at one point in his or her life. Some dogs are born with parasites inherited from their mother. Others become infected by coming in contact with another dog or through items they encounter during their daily travels. Here are some common dog parasites.

* Ear mites: A dog who routinely scratches at the ears may be experiencing ear mites. Ear mites are hard to see with the naked eye, but their waste, in the form of black specs, may be visible, and often looks like coffee grounds. Ear mites are transmitted through interaction with other infected animals. If one pet is found to have ear mites, then it can easily be spread to others. Owners should check all of the pets in the home. A veterinarian should be contacted for treatment options, which may include ear drops.

* Heartworms: Heartworms are transmitted through the bite of a mosquito. These parasites are found in most areas of the country. Almost 300,000 dogs in the U.S. are infected with heartworms every year. Heartworms can affect many organs of the dog's body, but fortunately are easily preventable with medication. Should the parasites grow and become a problem, however, they can be very difficult and expensive to treat.

* Mange: Demodex is a parasitic mite that lives in the hair follicle and oil glands of animals. The deterioration of the skin and fur is called mange. Healthy pets can usually fend off these mites, but when they become a problem, they may cause skin irritation and bald spots. A skin scraping is necessary to test for the mites and mange.

* Hookworms: Similar to tapeworms, hookworms are an intestinal parasite. They are contracted by walking on soil that contains hookworm larvae. The larvae burrow into the animal's skin and then make their way to the intestines. Humans can also be affected by hookworms. Hookworms can cause blood loss, poor weight gain and other problems. Veterinarians will need to give medicine to treat hookworms.

Cat Owners

Cats contract many of the same parasites as dogs. Veterinarian care and diagnosis may be needed to offer answers for treatment. Here are some additional conditions that may affect cats.

* Walking dandruff: Cats can become infected with Cheyletiellosis, more commonly known as walking dandruff. The culprit is a mite that causes extensive scaling of skin cells in cats, dogs and rabbits. Long-haired cats are at greater risk for contagion. Humans also are susceptible. Oftentimes a cat infestation of walking dandruff is revealed only after a human becomes infected.

* Toxoplasmosis: Cats may swallow cysts in the soil or in infected feces that contain toxoplasma gondii parasites. As the parasite multiplies, cat feces may become heavily infected with cysts and become a threat to humans as well. Individuals with compromised immune systems or women who are pregnant may become quite ill from toxoplasmosis. Cats can also become infected by hunting birds and rodents, which may be infected with the parasite.

Parasites can be a blight on a normally happy relationship with a pet. But practicing proper hygiene, routinely inspecting animals for abnormal behavior, and having regular veterinary check-ups can keep a pet parasite-free.