More Cottage Critter Hazards

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

More Cottage Critter Hazards

In a previous column I wrote about skunks and porcupines and the hazards they can cause for pets that get too "up close and personal". Well, those two animal species are not the only ones a pet owner needs to watch for when their pet goes camping or to the cottage.

Raccoons are another kind of animal that a pet may meet. Owners are often worried that a raccoon is likely to fight and seriously injure their dog or cat. This possibility certainly cannot be ruled out as a danger. However, unless the raccoon is trapped or cornered in an altercation, I believe, in most instances, it is unlikely a raccoon will initiate an unprovoked attack. Circumstances are different if the raccoon is rabid. In that condition, the raccoon may act as the aggressor. Raccoons and skunks, in Ontario, are two wildlife species that present some of greatest risk of spreading rabies. Both skunks and raccoons are nocturnal animals, more active at night. Therefore, sighting either animal during the day should raise a flag of concern. A responsible pet owner should immediately take action to prevent contact, for themselves and their pets, with such an animal.

Evening or nighttime encounters may be more difficult to prevent. That is the reason it is so important to be sure a pet's rabies vaccination protection is up to date. It will eliminate the worry of possible exposure to a fatal disease for the pet and its human family.

The other health risks to a pet, from a raccoon, have to do with some parasites they can spread to them. In fact, these parasites can be a hazard even without direct contact with a raccoon. A raccoon's environment is the danger zone. Fleas are one of the parasites. Young adult fleas that have reached this stage in their life cycle after falling off the raccoon as eggs, into the surroundings, are ready hop aboard a passing pet. Baylisascaris procyonis is the roundworm parasite of raccoons. It lives in their intestinal tract. The eggs from this parasite are passed in the stool of an infected raccoon. Raccoons tend to deposit their feces in latrines - areas with a large amount of raccoon stool. These sites are areas that pose a high risk for infection with this parasite to cats and dogs - and, for that matter, to humans, as well. The good news is that both these parasites should be eliminated as a problem to a pet that is receiving monthly flea/heartworm/intestinal parasite preventives.

An opossum is another animal a pet may cross paths with on a nature hike. Virginia opossums are another species, like the raccoon, that have thrived in changing environments. With reduced numbers of their natural predators and readily available food and housing in expanding urban areas, they have greatly expanded their usual habitats. Although these marsupials, like any mammal, can get rabies, it appears they are less likely become rabid than raccoons and skunks. Usually, if a dog or cat gets close, opossums play dead and are not likely to present a physical danger to the pet. They can, however, be a source of parasites to pets.

The last hazardous creatures I want to discuss are much smaller than previous ones but no less troublesome for our pets. Ticks are also much more likely to be a problem for pets that are getting close to nature. There are several different species of ticks that can cause trouble. One of them, the deer tick, can spread Lyme disease. Ticks cause blood loss, irritations and infections for dogs and cats. Bushes and wooded areas, especially in spring and fall, are places where ticks are more likely to be picked up. A pet needs to be checked regularly if it frequents such places. Ticks can range in size from the size of a sesame seed to the size of a fingernail (when engorged). Examine the pet in good lighting and it may be a good idea to wear light latex rubber gloves. Pay close attention to the ears, around the face, eyes, legs and belly. Feel carefully for any lumps on the skin under the hair. If a tick is found, it should be removed. Do Not use a match or caustic material to try to kill or smother the tick. Rather, when a tick is found embedded in the skin, use fine pointed tweezers, grasping the tick head firmly, at its point of attachment. Use slow, steady and firm traction to pull the tick straight out from the skin. The skin area where the tick was located should be washed with mild soap and water. Often pet owners prefer to have their veterinarian attend to such problems in order to reduce the risk of leaving parts of the tick buried in the skin.

Unfortunately, the medications available in Canada to protect dogs and cats against fleas are not very effective as a preventive against ticks. Preventic is an effective tick collar available for use in dogs to kill ticks that may infect them.

While all these creatures discussed may be more frequently encountered in cottage country and campgrounds, they do exist in our own urban settings and therefore a pet owner must be watchful and vigilant even if their pet remains very close to home.