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Summer often conjures up pleasant thoughts of vacations, outdoor cookouts and warm afternoons at the beach. For your cat, though, it can be the season of miserable infections spread by a number of unpleasant parasites, such as roundworms and giardia, which proliferate in warm temperatures. These bloodthirsty bugs of summer can cause serious health problems for your cat -- and can endanger your health too. Just remember that no parasite is invincible, so with a little know-how and prevention, you and your cat can both enjoy the summer months.
No Fleas, Please
Fleas seem to multiply by literal leaps and bounds in the summer, but they can thrive whenever weather temperatures rise and are known as a year-round problem in areas with warm climates. “Fleas can also survive very harsh winters in protected places like barns, garages and houses,” says Michael Paul, DVM, executive director of the Companion Animal Parasite Council. Fleas live in a cat’s fur and bite the skin, causing your cat to scratch and lick itself more than usual. When ingested, fleas can transmit tapeworms, another parasite. White sections of a tapeworm can be seen around your cat’s backside or in your cat’s bed.
If you notice fleas, talk to your veterinarian about how to safely use flea-killing products. Treat any other pets in the house as well, since the fleas can jump from pet to pet. Clean all rugs, bed covers and other areas where your cat sleeps. If your cat has tapeworms, your veterinarian will most likely recommend that you get rid of the fleas first. He or she will then give your cat a treatment that will kill the tapeworms.
Guarding Against Giardia
Unlike tapeworms, giardia is a one-celled parasite that cats can pick up from damp ground or the feces of another infected animal. “The main symptoms are diarrhea and vomiting,” says Charles Cohen, DVM, of the Sherman Oaks Veterinary Group in Sherman Oaks, Calif., who notes that giardia is far more common in Western states than in the East. Your vet can determine if your cat has picked up this parasite by examining a stool sample. Some cats require several rounds of medication to get rid of the parasite, says Dr. Cohen.
Getting Rid of Roundworms
Cats can pick up roundworms in the egg stage by eating an infected rodent, which is one reason why veterinarians recommend keeping cats indoors. Cats can also get it from warm soil. The dirt transfer happens when the eggs wind up on a cat’s fur, and the feline could then ingest them while grooming. Kittens may become infected when nursing from an infected mother cat. The eggs will then hatch in the victim’s intestinal system and migrate to other organs.
Roundworms can cause diarrhea and vomiting, and may give your cat a pot-bellied appearance. Examination of a feces sample will help your veterinarian confirm whether or not your cat has roundworms. Since this parasite can be transmitted to humans, you must wash your hands after handling feces and keep children from playing in areas where animals do their business.
Heartworm larvae enter a cat’s blood through a bite from infected mosquitoes, which proliferate in the warm and humid days of summer. The larvae can then migrate to a cat’s heart or lungs. Coughing, difficulty breathing, vomiting and weight loss are all symptoms of potentially fatal heartworm infection. Your veterinarian may need to conduct tests to find out for sure if your cat has heartworms. Although extra vigilance is required in the spring and summer, year-round treatment, under the guidance of your veterinarian, is key. “Heartworm preventives keep heartworms that are transmitted by mosquitoes from maturing to the next stage when they begin to develop into adult worms,” says Dr. Paul.
Although ticks pose a more common problem for dogs, they also prey on cats and humans. Prevalent during the warm months, ticks are particularly prone to be around forested areas. These tiny, dark parasites crawl onto a cat, bury their heads into the skin, and expand as they take in the victim’s blood. They are visible to the eye, so check your cat’s fur regularly for ticks all summer. Ticks can carry Lyme disease, which can be a serious health threat to humans, but less so for cats. If you see a tick on your cat, visit your veterinarian so he or she can remove it. You can pull it out yourself with tweezers, but be sure to remove the head of the tick; otherwise the tick bite could become infected.
Too small to be visible, hookworms enter a cat’s body as larvae picked up from the soil. They can then penetrate the cat’s skin, as well as your own. From that point, they may migrate to the victim’s lungs and intestines. The main symptom of an infected cat is dark stools. Fortunately, hookworms are easy for veterinarians to diagnose and treat.
Even though many parasites proliferate in the summer, most are a year-round reality. “Parasites are not generally the seasonal problem people think they are,” says Dr. Paul. This means that you should talk to your veterinarian about preventive medications and practices before and after summer rolls around. Tell your veterinarian if you plan to take your cat on vacation, especially if it’s a destination where different parasites may be more common, says Dr. Cohen.
In order to fully protect your cat, make these seven steps a part of your everyday routine:
Clean your cat’s litter box regularly.
Pay attention to your cat’s behavior, appetite or appearance, and visit the veterinarian if you notice any changes.
Take kittens to the vet for deworming and related medications.
Take your adult cat to the veterinarian at least once a year for checkups, fecal exams and parasite preventive medication.
Prevent your cat from hunting mice or other wild animals. Keeping your cat indoors at all times is optimal.
Never allow your cat to come into contact with the feces of other animals. For multi-cat households, provide one or more large (18-inch by 14-inch, approximately) litter boxes.
Wash your hands well after contact with a pet’s feces.
Dwelling on parasites can ruin any summertime daydream, but don’t put these pesky bugs out of your mind. With proper safeguarding, these potentially deadly, unwanted guests will choose to vacation somewhere else this summer!
Elizabeth Parker has written for The Boston Globe, Shape, Glamour, Viv and many other publications. She is co-author of Heeling Your Inner Dog: A Self-Whelp Book (Times Books) and currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, cat and two rabbits.
Cats reach full skeletal development when they are this old: