Summer offers the perfect opportunity to spend some quality time outdoors with your pets. While you might think that your cat’s flea collar or your dog’s flea and tick preventative will keep them protected against harmful pests, there’s one common pest that can threaten your pet’s health: mosquitoes.
Mosquitos are annoying, and a single bite can keep you itching all day long — but the risk they pose to pets’ health is often overlooked. We’re so concerned with the issues that fleas and ticks can cause our pets that mosquitoes seem to be an afterthought, but we should be much more concerned with protecting our pets against these pests too.
Mosquitoes can transmit heartworm to dogs. Dirofilaria immitis is a worm that infects the blood vessels and heart of a dog, injuring the dog’s cardiovascular and respiratory systems. If a mosquito bites an infected dog, it can ingest heartworm larvae within that dog’s blood. Those larvae are passed to the next dog that same mosquito bites, and then they mature into adult worms within that second dog’s body.
If left untreated, heartworms can grow up to a foot long, and they cause significant damage and illness. A dog with heartworm can appear lethargic, cough, or vomit, and have difficulty breathing. It is important to treat heartworm early on before significant damage can be done to the dog’s body. Ultimately, heartworm causes lung disease, heart failure, and organ failure, eventually killing the dog.
Testing a dog for heartworm and putting him on a regular heartworm preventative can help to prevent the spread of this condition. While there are treatments for heartworm, they are expensive and can cause life-threatening complications.
While mosquitoes can also transmit West Nile virus, eastern equine encephalitis, and systemic lupus erythematosus, rarely, these diseases are ever transmitted to dogs. Preventing heartworms remains the primary concern in keeping your dog healthy.
Heartworms are often thought of as a problem that affects dogs, but mosquitoes can spread heartworms to cats too. Canine heartworm disease and feline heartworm disease are different, and a cat’s immune system often kills off the heartworm larvae, stopping the infection. As a result, cats develop adult heartworms only about 10 percent as often as dogs do. While dogs can have several hundred heartworms at a time, cats only have between one to three adult worms. Still, a heartworm can damage cats’ lungs and hearts just the same way that it can in dogs.
Testing cats to determine the presence of heartworms is more challenging since the bloodwork test used on dogs doesn’t work on cats. Instead, cats usually require blood work paired with X-rays, ultrasounds, or even an echocardiogram. While dogs can be treated for heartworm, there is no current treatment that kills adult heartworms in cats. As in dogs, heartworm in cats can lead to cardiac and respiratory failure, as well as death.
Mosquito-borne diseases also pose significant risks to horses. Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), Western equine encephalitis (WEE), and Venezuelan equine encephalitis (VEE) are all transmitted when a mosquito bites an infected horse, then spreads the disease by biting another.
Of these three diseases, EEE is the most common, and it’s found within multiple areas of the United States. WEE occurs less frequently, and VEE occurs in Central and South America but hasn’t been in the United States for over 40 years.
EEE and WEE affect a horse’s nervous system and cause symptoms, including fever, behavior changes, and impaired vision. As the diseases progress, neurological symptoms such as circling, head pressing, and the inability to swallow emerge. Infected horses may experience muscle twitches, paralysis, and eventually convulsions and death. EEE and VEE have very low survival rates, but about 70% to 80% of horses infected with WEE do survive.
Unfortunately, mosquitoes spread new diseases that can threaten humans too. The Zika virus received significant media attention in 2016 when it spread across the coasts of the United States. The virus is transmitted by mosquitoes and poses a serious threat to pregnant women since it can cause birth defects. With no vaccine available, preventative measures such as avoiding areas with Zika and using mosquito repellent are the only defense against the virus.
While Zika is frightening, we haven’t yet seen its effects in pets or animals. Although there have been no reports of birth defects in animals as a result of the virus, that doesn’t mean that Zika won’t affect animals. Until we know more, it is best to protect pets against mosquitoes, especially in areas where Zika is prevalent.
Many people worry that mosquitoes could transmit HIV, but this is one disease the bugs do not transmit from person to person. HIV can’t survive inside mosquitoes, and mosquitoes don’t transmit blood from person to person, so we don’t have to worry about receiving from a mosquito bite.
Climate change is increasing the mosquito population, meaning that it’s more important now more than ever to protect your pets from mosquito-borne diseases. With warmer temperatures and milder winters, mosquitoes will be able to survive the winter. As a result, their numbers will increase. As temperatures get warmer in certain areas, mosquitoes will also start to migrate to locations where they couldn’t previously survive. New research suggests that the increased mosquito population could kill as many as a billion people by spreading diseases like malaria, yellow fever, dengue, and more.
The increased population and prevalence of mosquitoes throughout even the winter months will affect prevention methods that pet owners need to take. For instance, horse owners currently rejoice when the fall comes, and mosquitoes are eliminated, meaning that fly sprays and fly masks can be put away for the winter. With mosquitoes present year-round, pet owners will need to be more vigilant and extend their prevention methods into the winter.
Fear of mosquitoes doesn’t have to keep you and your pets indoors all day. Start by making your home and yard a place that’s unappealing to these pests. Because mosquitoes lay their eggs in stagnant water, it’s important to remove any standing water that may be present. Look for pool covers, dog dishes, flower pots, and even bottle caps where water could have gathered and eliminate these potential breeding areas. Gardens containing bird baths can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes, so regularly flush out the water or remove the birdbath entirely to make the garden safe for your pets.
You may also want to use traps to catch these bugs and reduce their population on your property. Attracting, trapping, and killing mosquitoes will make your entire yard a safer and more enjoyable place.
Mosquitoes are most active during the early morning and early evening, so try to keep your pets indoors during these times. Avoid walking your dog during these times, and if you’d like to be outdoors with your pets, opt to safely spend time on a screened-in deck with your pets instead of venturing out into the yard when the mosquitoes are active.
When you and your pets aren’t outdoors together, keep your pets indoors so that they aren’t at risk of being bitten. Regularly inspect your home’s window screens to keep these bugs out of your home.
Some topical flea treatments for dogs also help to repel mosquitoes from the dog before they bite. These preventatives can help to keep fleas out of your home and offer valuable protection against mosquitoes. Talk with your vet about both flea and heartworm preventatives for your pet.
Because horses live outside, it can be difficult to completely protect them from mosquitoes, but there are still plenty of strategies you can put to use around your barn.
Start by removing standing water, such as water troughs, water buckets, and even puddles in horse pastures. Consider hanging mosquito netting in the barn and stall doorways to keep them out of the barn. You may also want to invest in a fly misting system that periodically sprays the barn to help kill off mosquitoes and flies, though this can be an expensive investment.
Thoroughly spray all of your horses with a fly spray rated to deter mosquitoes on a daily basis. Equipping your horses with fly masks, fly sheets, and even fly boots can create a physical barrier to prevent mosquitoes from biting your horse.
Finally, make sure that all of your horses are up to date on their recommended vaccinations. Depending on the prevalence of mosquito-borne diseases in your location, your vet may recommend spring shots and potentially fall boosters for EEE and WEE. Talk to your vet to get their recommendation on the best vaccines for your specific area. If you travel with your horses to compete or trail ride, pay attention to alerts of EEE or WEE outbreaks and consider avoiding those areas to be extra safe.
Summer is made for heading out on adventures with your pets, whether you’re tackling a new trail via horseback or are taking your dog to the beach or to the pond. While it’s important to protect your pet from mosquitoes, you shouldn’t have to live in fear of these pests, either.
If you have concerns about your pet’s health and preventing mosquito bites, talk with your vet. Testing a cat or dog for heartworm and starting them on an appropriate heartworm preventative is one of the best ways to keep them safe and healthy. The same is true of keeping your horse’s EEE and WEE vaccinations up to date. When you also work to reduce mosquitoes around your home or barn, you can effectively defend your pets against the threat of disease.
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