How veterinary technicians can "save the day" by educating cat owners on the dangers of parasites and importance of prevention
This content is sponsored by NexGard COMBO.
Technicians were compared to superheroes that protect the cats from parasites, or the “villains,” during a lecture by Janet McConnell, CVT, program director for the Veterinary Assistant Program at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey, at the 2023 American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Convention in Denver, Colorado. The talk, sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA Inc, also reviewed common feline parasites and the key role veterinary technicians play in educating pet owners to prevent infestations.1
McConnell began by highlighting statistics with the 2022 AVMA Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook revealing the percentage of US households in the US owning dogs is 45% while those owning cats is 26%.2 Despite this difference, there are more cats per household (1.8) vs dogs (1.5), respectively. Although 76% of these dogs have been seen by veterinarians in the last year,2 only 65% of cats went to the veterinarian. McConnell refers to this as the “cat gap,” meaning there are lack of felines receiving the regular care they need compared to dogs, including parasite prevention. Further, there is a misconception among cat owners that indoor-only cats don’t need to be protected against parasites, however, McConnell stressed that “parasites can sneak in the home unnoticed” and it’s critical all felines are protected.
McConnell delved into the ins and outs of the following parasites found in felines, explaining, “To strengthen your superpower, you must first understand the villains.”
According to McConnell, Ctenocephalides felis are the most common external parasite found on cats in North America. These “hidden hitchhikers” survive indoors all year round, and once eggs are laid, infestations occur quickly. These fleas may cause itching and scratching, anemia, flea allergy dermatitis, tapeworm infection, artonellosis, and even tularemia.
Ixodes scapularis, the black-legged tick, and Amblyomma Americanum, the Lonestar tick, are 2 of the ticks she highlighted that are found on felines. McConnell explained they “hitch a ride and come inside,” can transmit dangerous pathogens, and are common to wooded or grassy areas. The prevalence of these ticks is growing, “the black-legged tick we see is going North [in the US] and also from the East spreading West…[while] the Lonestar tick is coming up from the Southeast and making its way to the Midwest,” she said. McConnell advised technicians to review parasite maps from the Center for Disease and Control Prevention to educate clients on the prevalence of ticks in their area.
McConnell said that heartworms partner with mosquito “accomplices” to “dive bomb their targets,” and emphasized this disease can come from just 1 bite from an infected mosquito. Though cats are less suitable hosts for this disease compared to dogs and heartworm larvae don’t usually survive to the adult stage, death of juvenile worms in the lungs can cause inflammation and acute respiratory disease. Additionally, the death of even 1 adult worm can be fatal for a cat, McConnell stressed, so this disease can be severe. She added that is especially important because “there is no approved adulticide therapy for heartworm in cats. And that's the takeaway for our owners when we're talking about protection, is that do you want risk it?”
Tapeworms work with a “flea accomplice” to inhabit the small intestine, and steal nutrients from feline hosts. This underscores the importance of ensuring flea control in feline patients. Though tapeworm infestation is often asymptomatic in cats, signs can include biting or licking their anus and dragging their hindquarters.3
According to McConnell, roundworms are one of the most common parasites in cats and infective eggs with roundworms can persist in the environment for years. They can work alone or with a “rodent accomplice,” and live freely in the small intestines of pets. Though adult cats may show no clinical signs, signs in kittens may be severe. The signs McConnell cited include vomiting, diarrhea, distended/swollen abdomen, and dull coat.
Hookworms rob hosts of blood and nutrients, live in the small intestine of felines, and show the highest infection rates in coastal regions, said McConnell. The infection can be associated with anemia, pale mucous membranes, blood and mucus in the feces, diarrhea, weight loss, poor haircoat, respiratory disease and pneumonia, and McConnell added that severe infections can even be fatal.
McConnell concluded her talk by reinforcing the importance of informing pet owners on the dangers parasites can present and the critical role of prevention, along with ensuring that indoor cats are considered as much as outdoor cats. “Educate and explain and encourage,” she said. “This is where we can make a difference in preventing parasites in cats.”