Seasonal tips from pet professionals

Ticks, sunburns, and other health concerns.


We’re ready for the warm weather, but how about your pets? A new season means new health concerns, and it’s important to know what to look out for. The last thing you need is a sick dog or cat during your busiest months of the year. Veterinarians will tell you prevention is easier than treatment, and three Island pet professionals gave their take on ticks, food, and other spring and annual health concerns.


What’s the latest on tick prevention?

Dr. Steven Atwood, Animal Health Care, West Tisbury

“The market is ever-evolving, and the Seresto Flea and Tick Collar by Bayer has emerged as a popular product in the past two or three years. It’s really effective, and truly effective for about eight months. It’s waterproof, and repels fleas and ticks so that parasites don’t die, and that’s one of the real advantages. Other recommendations are the monthly oral flea and tick pills like NexGuard and Simperica. People like them because they’re convenient, and aren’t messy like some of the oils and creams. I’d especially recommend the oral pills to folks living in high-tick areas like Chilmark and Chappaquiddick.”


Dr. Bridget Dunnigan, Vineyard Vet Clinic, Edgartown

“All dogs, and cats that go outside, should be on some type of year-round tick prevention. Both dogs and cats can be treated with a topical product with the active ingredient of fipronil. Examples of some brands are Parastar for dogs and EasySpot for cats, or Frontline for dogs and Frontline for cats. Both dogs and cats can wear a Seresto collar. This is a specific brand of collar, not the average ‘flea collar.’ Only dogs can be treated with an oral tick prevention like Nexgard, or Bravecta — these are not labeled for cats. The oral product might not be the best choice for dogs with a history of having seizures, as these medication may reduce the dog’s seizure threshold. It’s important to remember that many products that are safe for dogs are not safe for cats. Cats are unique, so if it is not labeled safe for cats, don’t use it on your cat.

“For those in high-tick areas, doubling up prevention for dogs may further reduce the risks of contracting of one or more of the tick-borne illness. For example, give an oral prevention like Nexgard on the first of the month, and also apply a topical like Parastar in the middle of the month. This is my personal favorite. Another example: You could give an oral prevention like Nexgard once a month and have the dog wear a Seresto collar.”


Dr. Constance Breese, Sea Breeze Veterinary Service, West Tisbury

“The once-monthly oral medications for tick prevention in dogs are effective and popular. Oral medications do not contain a repellent, but kill ticks once they are on the dog. Tick collars can help dogs stay tick-free, as they do contain a repellent. All medications must be given as directed by your veterinarian. There is a canine vaccine given to help prevent Lyme disease. After a series of two vaccines one month, apart it is given annually.

“Topical tick products are available for cats and dogs. For cats, only topicals are available, no orals. Topicals must be applied completely and correctly for maximum effectiveness. With any tick-bite prevention method, don’t play catch-up, or wait to see ticks reappear before reapplying or redosing.”


Does shaving your pet make it easier to find ticks?

Dr. Atwood: “When you have your pets shaved. you’re actually insulating them, they get warmer, it’s not doing what you think it’s doing. But for flea and tick prevention, I wouldn’t say it’s particularly necessary.”


Dr. Dunnigan: “I’d always recommend having your dog’s coat brushed out so that all loose hair is removed. That means brushing your dog every few days. Better for the dog and better for your house. Then, after a walk in the woods you can take a very fine-tooth flea comb to comb out the ticks. A clean, combed-out coat is most protective for the dog’s skin.”

Dr. Breese:
No. The haircoat is a natural barrier to ticks, sun, and other external factors.”


If you find an engorged tick, and they’ve had all their Lyme/tick prevention care, do you need to worry?


Dr. Dunnigan: Not every tick is carrying bacteria that can cause one of the tick-borne illnesses. So don’t panic. If you want, you can have the live tick tested. Put the unperturbed tick in a vial, and your veterinary office should be able to send it to a laboratory for testing. However, this can get expensive. I’ve seen some dogs with upwards of 50 or more engorged ticks. Testing all those ticks would cost in the thousands.”


Dr. Breese:An engorged tick may have transmitted a tick-borne disease such as anaplasmosis, for which there is no vaccine.”


What are the signs of Lyme in dogs? Does the same apply to cats and rabbits?


Dr. Dunnigan: Lyme disease, RMSF, anaplasma, and ehrlichiosis can all look the same. Lethargy, anorexia, joint pain, fever (normal dog and cat rectal temperatures are 101.5 to 102.5), and sometimes vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, or other signs of illness.”


Dr. Breese: “Tick-borne diseases, including Lyme, present with fever and joint pain, often in more than one limb. Cats and rabbits can get a very serious tick disease called tularemia, which is contagious to people via contact with the rabbit or cat. These two species rarely contract Lyme.”


Other seasonal and annual concerns:

What is kennel cough?

Dr. Dunnigan: “Kennel cough is an infectious tracheobronchitis, which is typically a combination of viral and bacterial components. It is very contagious from dog to dog, and causes a severe cough. For otherwise healthy dogs, clinical signs will resolve in 1 to 2 weeks. For the very young, old, and immunosuppressed, it can lead to secondary pneumonias that can become more serious.”


Dr. Atwood: “Kennel cough becomes more of a concern with the warmer weather because there’s an increase in animal congregation. More folks are bringing their dogs to the park, and many come from off-Island, so their status is not certain.”


Dr. Breese: “It’s a highly contagious respiratory illness in dogs, spread by coughing and close contact with one another. An annual vaccine is given. Be proactive and vaccinate.”


What are some other things people should look out for this time of year?

Dr. Dunnigan: “Everyone seems to know about the bacteria that can cause Lyme disease, but the most common tick-borne illness bacteria on Martha’s Vineyard is a different species in the genus Anaplasma. Martha’s Vineyard also has the bacteria that causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and another tick-borne illness bacteria in the genus Ehrlichia. All of these are transmitted by an infected tick.

“Heat exhaustion is another one. Dogs overheat in the fraction of the time that people overheat. Dogs don’t sweat. So imagine yourself in a winter coat and wrapped in cellophane. Yep, if you’re hot, your dog is potentially overheating. So don’t leave your dogs in cars, don’t run your dog in the midday summer heat, and provide some way to keep your dog cool.

“Rat poison. It’s a baited, tasty product, and your dog will eat it. It is poison and can kill your dog. If you need to treat for rats, please use a snap trap. It is quick for the rat and won’t kill a dog.

“Cars. Keep your dogs behind a solid fence or on a leash, and keep your cats indoors. Most pets hit by a car don’t live.

“Human food. Many food items that are safe for people can kill dogs and cats. Examples are chocolate, grapes, raisins, onions, garlic, and xylitol, a sugar substitute in many gum, candies, and peanut butters. The ASPCA Poison Control has a great website, and their emergency phone number is good to have on hand.

“Skunk sprays are not a veterinary health issue, just a severe annoyance for all of us with noses. Check your yard before letting your dog outside. I use a large flashlight.”


Dr. Breese: “Island veterinarians keep current with emerging veterinary diseases. Although the island is geographically isolated, we have visitors who bring their pets here from many locations. Outbreaks of canine influenza are occurring in the U.S., so potentially a visiting dog could bring the disease here.”


Dr. Atwood: Salt water. Our pets will start swimming and being at the beach where there are carcasses, dead birds, and all sorts of things. They’ll drink the seawater and eat the beach hors d’oeuvres, and this can really upset GI tracts. There’s not much you can do about it, but it’s something to be aware of.

“Sunburns. Light-coated dogs with thin hair coats, especially white, are most at risk for sunburns. Those dogs shouldn’t be in the sun as much, and some people will use block on their ears and backs. So people with light-coated dogs and cats should limit their sun exposure.”


Other questions:

How much water should a dog be drinking every day?

Dr. Atwood: It varies with the size of dog. Best is to have access to fresh, cool water all the time, unless they’re ill. There are very few animals that don’t drink enough water. If it’s available, cool, and fresh, they’ll drink what they need. In the warm weather, they’ll drink more. If they’re drinking significantly more, that could be the sign of a potential problem.


Dr. Dunnigan: “Dogs should be provided a source of clean drinking water at all times. The individual water drinking requirements vary with their size, breed, their exercise level, what they eat, and their health status. If you think your dog is drinking more than normal, you should have it seen by your veterinarian to be assessed for health problems.”


What are the current trends on feeding cats and dogs?

Dr. Atwood: “The marketplace is inundated with all sorts of designer brands. The trends seem to be the natural ingredients, and limiting or reducing fillers like allergens and grains and other things that can make dogs itch and bite. The higher-end hypoallergenic food is certainly trending. People seem to be looking for higher quality and pure ingredients.”


Dr. Dunnigan: “What a dog needs is a nutritionally balanced diet. Canned or dry. Dry is easiest on the owner; however, there are some veterinarians that may recommend canned food over dry. Whatever brand your feed your dog, the label should have the Association of American Feed Control (AAFCO) statement on it, ensuring nutritional adequacy, meaning enough protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals for a dog of a specific age group.

“Home-cooked meals are often nutritionally deficient. If you must cook your dog’s food, you should hire a board-certified veterinarian nutritionist that will help ensure that your home-cooked meal will provide the required protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.

“Grains are not bad for dogs, except for the very rare dog that may have a specific grain allergy. This ‘grain-free’ diet is the current fad, not science.”


Dr. Breese: “Instead of serving your pet a bowl of kibble, hide food so cats hunt for it, or offer different textures and sizes of food. Utilize toys that engage dogs and cats to work, find, and play for food. Our pets have amazing sets of teeth that are not utilized well by most current feeding practices. Zoos determined that just feeding excellent-quality food is not enough to best satisfy the psychology and physiology of animals.”


Are those rawhide treats bad?

Dr. Atwood: “I don’t encourage people to get rawhide treats. I don’t think they’re necessary. They can be swallowed in large chunks and create blockages and GI upsets. Having said that, a lot of dogs do eat them and are fine. Better and safer options are Nylabones or gum bones, designed to be worked on and chewed overtime, that don’t cause GI problems. Sometimes rawhide is hard on teeth and causes dental fractures — another reason why it’s probably not the best.”


Dr. Dunnigan: “Rawhide is potentially bad. There are a number of factors. Many come from outside the U.S., and we can’t know what has been added to them. So if you must give your dog a rawhide, make sure it comes from a U.S. source. Your dog should only chew on it when you are watching, and throw the rawhide away when it gets near a size your dog could swallow. If your dog swallows a piece of the rawhide, it could require an exploratory surgery to remove a piece stuck in the intestinal tract. Also remember rawhide treats are raw, and uncooked animal products can carry bacteria that can lead to life-threatening infections.”


Dr. Breese: “Rawhide treats can be hard to digest if large pieces of them are swallowed.”