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The truth about flea and worm treatments

Most vets recommend that you treat your dogs for fleas and worms every month in order to prevent them getting infected, and many practices offer monthly flea and worming programs where you subscribe to receive treatments at a discounted price. But what if I told you that this isn't necessary?


How do flea and worming treatments work?

Flea and worming treatments work by killing any fleas or worms that your dog currently has ie they are therapeutic rather than prophylactic. This means that your dog can still get worms or fleas in between treatments. Lets compare fleas to headlice; we don't use medicated shampoo every month, we only use it in the unfortunate event that we get headlice. This is because the shampoo only works to kill any headlice we currently have and it doesn't prevent from future cases. Despite what we are commonly led to believe, flea and worming treatment works in exactly the same way. The only exception to this are flea collars, which slowly release chemicals that spread through the hair/skin to kill any fleas that try to settle, and can therefore last for months at a time.


With most conventional medicines, there are potential drawbacks. For example, doctors soon learnt that bacteria could become resistant to antibiotics, and so have to be very careful not to overuse them. The same can be said of flea and worming treatments; whilst there is no current evidence to show that fleas and worms have developed resistance in dogs, we know that pests can develop resistance to insecticides and resistance to chemical wormers in horses, cattle and sheep has long been recognised as a growing concern, so it would make sense to reserve use to where there is an actual clinical need. Similarly, most medications have some form of side effect, and the stronger the medication or the more frequent the use, the stronger or more prevalent those side effects tend to be. Doctors therefore have to consider whether the potential benefits outweigh the risks of that medication. Equally, some people react badly to some medications and so doctors sometimes have to trial different medications to find what works best for the individual.



Potential side effects of flea treatments include skin irritation, stomach and intestinal problems and at the extreme end of the spectrum they can affect the nervous system and cause seizures. Potential side effects of worming treatments can include intestinal problems and lethargy, and in extreme cases anaphylaxis. I, like most pet owners listened to vet advice and gave Oliver monthly flea treatments when I first adopted him. However, after a few months of use, he was terrified when I would go to apply the pipette to the back of his neck, and would yelp when the liquid made contact with his skin. If he had actually had fleas, then I would have considered this temporary discomfort to outweigh the risks of leaving him untreated for fleas. However, I knew that he didn't have fleas and so I questioned whether it was actually benefiting him, and this is where I researched alternative methods. I decided that if the medication is not prophylactic and there is no clinical need then why keep exposing him to something that was clearly unpleasant and had no benefits.


What should you do instead?

So, we have established that conventional flea and worming treatments are not always the best solution. Understandably, no one wants their dog to get fleas or worms and fleas in particular can be a pain to get rid of once you have them, but there are plenty of preventatives that are just as effective and much better for your dog's overall health.


Fleas

In the case of fleas it should be very fairly obvious if your dog catches them. Common symptoms include increased scratching, and bites or rashes, particularly around the neck, lower back, groin and stomach areas. They will also likely have flea dirt, which looks like small bits of mud, but turns red when wet. A good way to check is to flick some of the dirt onto a paper towel and then add a bit of water. If the dog has had fleas for a while then you may also start to find bald patches or rough fur due to persistent itching, as well as wounds and infected bites.


If your dog gets fleas, the best course of action is to treat with a normal flea treatment like the ones that you would get from your vets monthly, whether that be an oral tablet or a topical treatment. Flea shampoos and powders are also available, but they only kill fleas that are on the dog at the time. Adult fleas can survive without a host for up to two weeks, and so it is sensible to wash all bedding and soft furnishings, vacuum and use an insecticide spray in the home to ensure that your dog doesn't get reinfected. Sometimes a repeat treatment is needed in order to kill fleas at all stages of their lifecycle.


In order to prevent your dog from catching fleas in the first place, there are various natural remedies that act as a flea repellent, such as apple cider vinegar, lemon, peppermint oil, neem oil and garlic. These need to be given regularly so that they build up in your dog in order to act as a deterrent. These can often be given as supplements, and I use Verm-X for my two dogs but there are other products out there such as Billy No Mates! and Tropiclean. The added benefit of lot of these supplements is that they protect against ticks and mites too!


Worms

For worms, the symptoms can be less obvious unless the dog is carrying a large worm burden, and there are also different types of worms with different symptoms. Some symptoms include:


  • Weight loss

  • Anaemia

  • Skin inflammation/ dermatitis

  • Blood in faeces (fresh or tarry)

  • Inflamed rectum and scooting or licking

  • Evidence of worms in faeces or around rectum (tapeworms)

  • Evidence of worms in vomit or faeces (roundworms)

  • Changes in coat condition/ loss of condition

  • General malaise

  • Lack of growth (in puppies)

  • Pot-bellied appearance

  • Coughing, lethargy (heartworms)

Even if your dog isn't showing any symptoms, the best way of testing for worms is to do a worm count every 6 months or so. A worm count is done by sending off a sample of your dog's faeces to a lab, where they will look at the sample under a microscope to see whether it contains any worms. You will then receive a report advising of whether any worms were detected and if so what type and how many. If no worms are detected then happy days, you don't need to take any action. If a small number of worms are detected then you don't necessarily need to go straight to chemical wormers and can resolve the issue with natural wormers. However, if your dog has a large worm burden then the quickest way of getting rid of them is to give them a chemical wormer.


Instead of using chemical wormers, there are plenty of natural wormers available. Animal hair is a natural wormer, and so feeding your dog chews containing hair such as rabbit ears and cow ears can protect your dog. Other natural wormers include pumpkin seeds, wormwood, garlic and thyme. Just as with flea preventatives, various companies have developed supplements containing these ingredients for you.


So, if you have been using monthly chemical flea and worming treatments on your dog without really questioning why, we hope that this blog has given an insight into what they do and what other options are available. That is not to say that conventional medicine doesn't have it's place - it absolutely does - but that there are alternative options which can often be kinder on your dog.



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