Extreme veterinary parasite season predicted

South to be hardest hit, parasitologists predict.
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May 01, 2012

It's likely going to be a busy year for veterinarians and a dangerous one for companion animals, with experts predicting high parasite populations across the country.

The Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) anticipates a rise in parasites nationwide, with the southern portion of the United States seeing the worst of it. To craft their forecast for 2012, CAPC parasitologists analyzed National Weather Service data, weather trends and parasite prevalence statistics from veterinary clinics and animal shelters across the country.

In the South, CAPC predicts "extremely high parasite populations in all areas," including West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana.

Byron Blagburn, PhD, a parasitology professor at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., and a member of CAPC, says higher-than-normal temperatures across the country and high precipitation rates indicate that parasites, particularly heartworm, will be a problem this year. In fact, Blagburn suggests, 2012 could be a "banner year" for heartworm.

"It is going to be an extremely problematic challenge this year with heartworm," Blagburn says. "The slightest deviation in medication could pose significant health risks in many pets."

These predictions come in the midst of CAPC's broader efforts to reach consumers directly. The organization is launching a major pet owner education initiative this month with the goal of driving pet owners to visit their veterinarian with all parasite-related questions and concerns. (See "CAPC launches parasite prevalence maps for pet owners" for more information.)

As the South braces for a tough parasite season, the Northeast and Midwest also are in for increased activity, with CAPC predicting high parasite populations for both regions, particularly in areas with above-average temperatures and rainfall. This includes Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and the District of Columbia in the Northeast; and Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska in the Midwest.

During the past five to 10 years, both the Northeast and Midwest have seen an increase in heartworm prevalence, even in areas where heartworm wasn't commonly found. This poses an increased risk to dogs and cats.

The Northwest—Washington, Oregon and Northern California—should expect to see moderate to higher-than-normal parasite populations, with localized and persistent parasite spikes possible in areas with above-average temperatures and rainfall, according to CAPC.

The parasite forecast for the West is moderate, CAPC says, pointing out that lower-elevation areas with increased temperatures and rainfall could experience persistent parasite spikes. Practitioners in the West—Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho—as well as across the country should be diligent, they say.

"It's imperative that clients recognize the need to see their veterinarian and to get the proper product at the proper intervals," Blagburn says.

Heartworm isn't the only immediate concern. Fleas, hookworm and roundworm all may pose problems as well. American Heartworm Society President Wallace E. Graham Jr., DVM, of Wooldridge Creek Animal Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, has already had to perform a blood transfusion on a dog with flea-bite anemia.

"Veterinarians are likely to see increased traffic in clinics," he says. "We have had a very mild winter with some relief in drought areas, particularly my area of Texas, and we anticipate many, many more mosquitoes. The rate of heartworm transfer exposure in dogs and cats is significantly higher this year than last, which makes religious adherence to monthly schedules important."

Clients who are interested in heartworm medication may be asking about it when they come in the door, but if that happens, Graham suggests that he isn't doing his job. Rather, the entire staff should be on board with educating clients about heartworm before they even have to ask.

Graham suggests using the American Heartworm Society's Think 12 web page ( http://heartwormsociety.org/think12/) and fact sheets that promote annual heartworm testing and 12-month prevention plans.

Christopher Carpenter, DVM, MBA, executive director of CAPC, agrees that educational tools are extremely important when veterinarians communicate with pet owners. "Parasites are one of the best ways to build a strong base with clients," he says. For example, CAPC's parasite prevalence maps are a way to "tap the client on the shoulder and say, 'Parasites are important locally. Here, come see me,'" Carpenter says.