More than 2,000 species of fleas exist, but the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis) is the one most responsible for the relentless itching suffered by both cats and dogs. To some pets, fleas are an annoyance, but to others…one or two bites from a flea can make the animal down right miserable! When a flea bites to draw blood, it injects saliva into the skin. Flea saliva contains an anti-coagulant so that the flea can continue to feast, but this and other components in the saliva can trigger an allergic reaction know as Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD) resulting in severe itching that lasts for weeks. It can quickly turn into a rash or even raw, irritated patches of skin on your dog. Your dog licks and chews to alleviate the discomfort which allows bacteria and yeast to get under the skin causing a secondary infection. Only your veterinarian can then help you help your dog by prescribing medications that will ease the itching, inflammation and infection, so…before it gets to this point, it is up to YOU to keep your house, yard and dog, flea-free!
Just because your dog is older and may go outside less doesn’t mean he can’t get fleas. Just because you have an indoor cat doesn’t mean she can’t get fleas! It only takes a moment and these parasites come indoors on our clothes or jump across thresholds too. If you’re not seeing fleas on your pet, yet he is scratching, take out your flea comb (with the tiny, close-together teeth) and comb your dog down his back and at the base of the tail. When you pick up those little dark grains, dump them onto a dampened paper towel. If the debris just sits there, you’ve probably combed up dirt and dander, but…if the paper towel turns pink, that is dehydrated blood from your dog (aka flea dirt) and you need to help alleviate his itch along with preventing more of those critters from bothering him.
Another pest that can wreak havoc on your pet’s system is the tick, and there are more than 800 species of these tiny arachnids crawling around that, like the flea, feast on the blood of mammals, birds and sometimes reptiles and amphibians. Ticks live in grassy and wooded areas around the world, mostly in warm, humid clients, but some species can be found in more arid parts. Not all carry diseases but many do, as many as 150 different diseases! As dog moms and dads, the types we are the most concerned with are:
- American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis): These ticks are most commonly found in grassy areas with little to no tree cover. They feed on hosts of all sizes and can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever (various clinical signs including neurologic and painful hypersensitivity).
- Brown Dog Tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus): These ticks are found all over the world and in all parts of the United States, though most heavily concentrated in the south. Brown dog ticks can transmit Anaplasmosis (bacterial disease infecting white blood cells or platelets), Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Canine Ehrlichiosis (can affect platelets, lymph node enlargement and neurologic abnormalities).
- Gulf Coast Tick (Amblyomma maculatum): The Gulf Coast Tick, via ingestion, transmits American Canine Heptozoonosis, which can debilitate a dog’s bones and muscles and abnormally increase white blood cells.
- Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis): Also known as the blacklegged tick, the deer tick is most commonly found in deciduous forest areas and may carry Lyme disease (lameness due to inflammation of the joints), Anaplasmosis and/or Babesiosis (resulting in hemolytic anemia).
- Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americamm): This type of tick is primarily found in areas of dense undergrowth and in woodland areas. Lone star ticks can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Ehrlichiosis.
- Wood Tick (Dermacentor andersoni): Also known as the Rocky Mountain wood tick, they are primarily found in lightly wooded areas, grasslands and shrub land. Wood ticks can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever and have a type of neurotoxin in their saliva which can lead to tick paralysis in both pets and humans.
Where you and your pooch or kitty live will help you determine the best methods of flea and tick prevention to use. Searching on the internet will put great fear in you regarding preventatives as almost every brand is connected to a horror story about the product causing harm to some pet. Do realize, a potentially bigger risk exists in NOT preventing these pests from biting your pet, so speak to your veterinarian who knows your dog and what tick diseases exist in your neck of the woods, or wherever you may be travelling to with your dog.
A good rule of thumb is to ask your veterinarian what he or she uses on his or her own pets. My vet uses Bravecto® for the critters that inhabit Northwest Georgia but also recommends the Seresto® collar for anyone not wanting to treat their dog orally.
Julie Buzby, DVM, CVA, CAVCA, Founder of Dr. Buzby’s Innovations and a Grey Muzzle Organization Advisory Board Member who hails from South Carolina shared, “I am strictly using oral products however, I know the Seresto® collar also works well as long as it is on tightly enough to contact the skin, not just the fur. I have used Nexgard® on my dogs for several years, and it works marvelously. With ANY medications, there are risks, but they are low for these classes of drugs when used as directed however, the risks associated with your dog not being protected can be very high, depending upon where you live or travel with him.”
Building upon Dr. Buzby’s advice, read directions, make sure medications have not expired and that they have been properly stored. It’s imperative that you use weight-specific and species-specific doses, and if you have a multi-pet household, you make sure the cat doesn’t lay on the dog’s bed right after a topical has been applied, rub against another animal or vice versa.
The most common methods of flea & tick prevention for you to choose for your senior dog include:
Monthly Oral medications (tablet or chewable) take away the worry of getting the topical medication onto your dog and waiting for it to dry. Oral medications do NOT repel fleas or ticks. Instead, the parasites have to actually bite or attach to the dog before they will be killed. As with any oral medication, your pet may spit it out or suffer a stomach upset. Some oral meds also prevent heartworm disease, so speak with your veterinarian as to which brand will best protect your senior dog from the species in your area and know what side effects to be alerted to.
Topicals or Spot On products (liquid or ointment applied to your dog’s skin) are effective for one to three months, depending on the brand. They contain ingredients that kill fleas and ticks on your dog while some contain a repellant that keeps pests off your pet in the first place. Generally applied at the neck or between the shoulder blades and directly onto the skin, topical preventatives spread over the dog’s body through sweat glands or by using a bioadhesive. Once dried, the pet can go swimming or be bathed, but keep kids and other pets away until topicals dry completely. Speak to your veterinarian about potential side effect.
Judy Morgan, DVM, CVA, CVCP, CVFT and owner of two award-winning veterinary clinics in New Jersey, likes coconut oil for killing and repelling fleas due to the lauric acid. “Coconut oil can be rubbed through the coat and can be fed to the pets. I use 1 teaspoon per 20 pounds of body weight twice daily in the food. Coconut oil melts at 76 degrees, so rubbing it between your hands will make it into a liquid that you can rub through your pet’s coat. It moisturizes skin and helps kill yeast too.”
Collars contain a concentrated chemical that can kill and repel fleas and ticks. The new generation of collars are safer and some are effective for up to 8 months. As with any product, be sure you understand any potential side effects to watch out for.
Sprays can be difficult to apply for complete coverage. For older dogs, pets with compromised immune systems or anyone wanting a more natural approach however, non-insecticide sprays are becoming a popular choice. Containing essential oils such as Cedarwood, Peppermint, Lavender and Neem oils, most need to be re-applied daily or weekly to be effective, and it’s important to obtain good coverage on the pet’s coat. If the animal is bathed or gets caught in a rain storm, another application may be necessary, yet is safe. Take care to avoid getting into your dog’s eyes or mouth.
Dr. Morgan recommends Vetri Repel Spray by Vetri Science® and kin + kind Flea & Tick Spray. Our dogs’ sense of smell is much stronger than ours, so she reminds, “A little goes a long way, but I reapply as soon as I can no longer smell it on my pet.” An advocate of essential oils for parasite control, Morgan explains, “Lavender oil has been shown to repel ticks, while lemongrass oil seems to work particularly well against fleas. Peppermint oil will affect the nervous system of fleas and ticks without harming your pet. Many people use rose geranium oil and find it works well. Neem oil has been around forever and is another favorite.”
Powders are dusted over the body and rubbed into the fur. Complete coverage is difficult and it is so important to avoid contact with the pet’s eyes and mouth. Discuss potential side effects with your veterinarian. Says Morgan, “Food grade Diatomaceous Earth can be sprinkled in the environment or on the pet. Be careful when using topically, as you don’t want your pet to inhale the dust. DE will be drying to the coat, which is why it works to kill fleas and ticks – it dries them out.”
Shampoos and Dips are not preventative and some can be very harsh to your pet’s skin. It is advisable to have the dip done with your veterinarian’s consent, especially on a senior pet.
Additionally, keep your pets out of high-infestation areas, eliminate carpets or vacuum daily during flea and tick season, bathe pets regularly and check them daily for parasites and treat your yard. Beneficial nematodes kill flea larvae in your yard but will not survive in hot, sunny areas of the lawn. Spread them in moist, shady areas where fleas and ticks are most likely to be found. Keep your lawn short to deter infestations and plant deer resistant plants in your yard so deer (who carry fleas and ticks) will not be as tempted to come around. Lavender, sage, mint, wormwood, rosemary and marigolds are not favorites of fleas and ticks, so plant them everywhere, and if permissible in your municipality, chickens and new guinea hens keep the tick population at bay.
Know how to safely remove a tick? I count on tweezers by TickEase® to help me do the job, but start off by placing a cotton ball soaked in either dish soap or rubbing alcohol on the tick first to see if he’ll back out of the pet. Afterwards, I douse the area with 3% hydrogen peroxide or antibacterial cream, and always save the tick! Should the spot turn red or look infected in a few hours or days, you have tick (kill him first in rubbing alcohol) in a sealed zipper back to show the veterinarian. Even before we head outside however, I find that Buzz Guard® by Earth Heart can keep the bugs away!
The takeaway is…fleas and ticks can cause great harm, disease, even death to our four-legged best friends. It is important however, that you discuss and understand the risks and benefits of flea and tick preventative with your veterinarian who is familiar with your senior dog’s health and medical history. Your pet’s medical professional will also be privy to what methods and brands work best at killing and/or repelling the particular pests in your neighborhood. When applying any type of medication, always stay with and observe your senior dog for several hours to make sure there are no immediate ill effects and then continue to monitor. Every medication has its risks, so seek out the best way to keep parasites off your pooch, but don’t risk your dog getting a fatal disease by not being protected!
When the irritating itch of flea and tick bites causes excessive licking…
That constant licking can result in…summer sores, acute moist dermatitis, lick granulomas, acral lick dermatitis, OCLD (obsessive compulsive licking disorder). A hot spot by any name is still a painful nuisance to an animal in your care and often difficult to heal. Lick sores seem to appear spontaneously, and for some reason are less common in cats, yet they can occur and are generally found in easier-to-reach locations where a pet licks a small irritation and creates a flare up.
Veterinarians often cannot prescribe a specific cure since way down to the base layer of the skin, microscope pockets of bacteria and any combination of broken hair follicles, plugged and scarred oil glands and dilated and inflamed capillaries are present. If surgically removed, the pet then licks at the sutures or incision line creating a brand new granuloma, and the cycle repeats.
What Causes Hot Spots?
Hot spots occur when an animal itches, scratches and licks himself excessively forming a wet opening on the skin – often after a flea bites! Normal healthy bacteria are always present on an animal’s body, but once he bites or chews and breaks the skin’s surface, if there is even a little moisture, the perfect environment for bacterial contamination exists! Hot spots often form on the top of a dog’s wrist joint or one of his paws – easy to lick spots – but can also be found on the hind legs and even ear flaps, especially in breeds with floppy ears. Affected pets generally have an allergic reaction, irritation or other underlying skin condition that starts them on an itch-lick-chew cycle. Some however, chew and lick purely out of boredom or as self-stimulation to alleviate separation anxiety. The pet becomes fixated and compulsively licks until a wound develops.
Lick sores occur more frequently during humid weather, after a bath or swim or when an animal walks in the rain, so it is imperative to keep pets clean, well-groomed and parasite-free. Pay attention to the smallest of sores, as even a slighting oozing wound can provide enough moisture for the bacteria to take hold. Irritation from matted fur can also cause these bothersome lesions to develop in any breed but particularly in those with dense undercoats.
Signs & Symptoms
- Compulsive licking and chewing at a particular body part
- Raised, rough, raw-looking lesion, typically on the top of a lower front leg or paw (but can be anywhere the pet can reach to lick or scratch)
- Reddish-brown saliva staining around the hot spot site
- Oozing, ulcerated, pus-filled drainage tracts coming from the hot spot site
- Foul smell coming from the hot spot site
- Swelling around the hot spot site
- Pain and visible discomfort
What to Do?
According to Julie Buzby, DVM, CVA, CAVCA and Founder of Dr. Buzby’s Innovations, “Early intervention is key for hotspots,” so bring it to the attention of your client at once. As with most things in life, hot spots are less complicated to care for when small and treated at onset. Buzby adds, “Although home remedies may work, hot spots can grow quickly and are uncomfortable for the pet, so I always recommend seeking veterinary care for treatment. They are usually secondary to something else, such as atopy (seasonal allergies), flea allergies or even pain, so in addition to addressing the immediate need of the wound, a longer term strategy might be needed to prevent this from becoming a seasonal or recurring issue. In other words, don’t be surprised if your veterinarian talks about a bigger picture than just the oozy sore that you made the appointment for. Although there are various types of hot spot-causing bacteria, most respond to oral and topical antibiotics.” Buzby continues, “Successful treatment will usually require figuring out the root cause. There is no miracle cure for lick granulomas, but acupuncture can sometimes be a valuable part of treatment and I’ve personally seen success with this in a few patients.”
First Aid Before Veterinary Care is Available
- Trim the fur around the hot spot with blunt nosed scissors. Exposing it to air will help dry out the moisture and speed healing.
- Clean the area with a mild water-based astringent or antiseptic spray, even pure saline.
- Gently pat the area dry with a soft cloth. Do not apply ointments to a hot spot as these products seal in infection while medications containing alcohol will burn an open wound. Instead use an antibacterial spray that dries up the sore or apply a tea bag (green, not herbal, that has cooled after being soaked for 5 minutes in hot water). The tannic acid is a natural astringent that dries and heals. Use this treatment 3-5 times per day until healed.
- An alternate remedy is to apply apple cider vinegar (the unadulterated organic kind containing sediment) directly to the hot spot 4 times daily. Soak a cloth and wipe the clipped area gently. Apple cider vinegar has anti-inflammatory as well as antibacterial properties.
- From your Pet First Aid Kit, apply hydrocortisone spray or cream (not ointment – see #3 above) to stop the itching and help promote healing.
- Prevent pet from licking, chewing or scratching the affected area. Elizabethan or cervical collar might just be the tool needed. Although t-shirts, socks and doggie onesies help with some wounds, remember for hot spots, we want to keep them open to dry out.
- Keep an eye on the area to make sure it continues to heal and doesn’t worsen or spread. Hot spots often require a visit to the vet, who will likely prescribe topical medication usually in the form of a Gentamicin/Betamethasone spray and possibly oral antibiotics. It’s possible the vet may also give the pet a cortisone injection to jump start the healing process.
As with most illnesses and injuries, hot spots are easier to prevent than cure, and patience is the prescription for the human providing care.
CATCH THE LIVE DISCUSSION HERE: https://youtu.be/BmXxWECf9kQ
For 20 years Denise Fleck’s Sunny-dog Ink motto has been “Helping people to help their pets,” and she has…personally having taught close to 20,000 pet lovers animal life-saving skills and millions more on “The Doctors,” CNN, “Kirstie Alley’s Big Life,” Animal Planet and other TV shows. Denise is a frequent conference speaker, developed a line of pet first aid kits, written a dozen books and now offers classes online.
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