Joan Merriam: ‘Bugged’ by the season |

Joan Merriam: ‘Bugged’ by the season

Joan Merriam
Black-legged tick.

Ahhh, the glories of springtime!

After a winter as soggy and turbulent as this last one, these warm and cheerful days of spring are especially welcome. We certainly couldn’t be blamed for just kicking back and reveling in the magnificence of the season: the brilliant wildflowers dotting our hills and canyons…gushing creeks and streams filled to capacity…the chortling of Sandhill cranes lazily spiraling overhead as they return from their winter fields.

But there’s a less blissful aspect to spring that we pet lovers also need to think about.

Let’s call it “The bugs of spring.”


Of course, spring is always the time of year when insects emerge to “bug” us, but because of our especially wet winter, experts say this spring will be worse than usual…and that goes for our four-footed friends as well.

Let’s take a look at what we all need to be watchful for:


Yes, they’re gross and disgusting…but they’re something we have to deal with and unfortunately, live with. They’re also particularly clever little creatures, hiding in plain sight on the tips of leaves and grasses just waiting for a passing animal (or human) to latch onto with their tiny front-leg hooks.

While ticks generally start emerging in California in late November, peak tick season runs from April through June in northern California, according to UC Berkeley entomologist Dr. Bob Lane. Our own western blacklegged tick, commonly referred to as the deer tick because black-tailed deer are its primary host, is the principle transmitter of Lyme disease. Only about the size of a sesame seed in adulthood, these ticks crawl (no, they DON’T fly or hop!) onto your dog and immediately begin burrowing into the fur in search of a blood meal.

Humans bitten by these ticks may or may not feel the bite at first, which later causes pain and severe inflammation. Unless you notice an expanding reddish “bulls-eye” rash, the inflammation is likely an immune reaction to the tick’s saliva and not an indication of Lyme disease.

In most cases, it takes 36 to 48 hours for the Lyme bacterium to be transmitted, so it’s crucial to remove any ticks from you or your dog immediately. And yes, both of you can contract Lyme disease; in dogs, Lyme can cause arthritis, swelling of the joints, and lameness.

Since there’s no way to completely eradicate ticks short of carpet-bombing the entire forest, you’re better off preventing them from biting your dog in the first place.

There are three major types of tick preventatives: spot-on treatments like Frontline Plus and K9 Advantix, oral medications like NexGard and Trifexis, and collars such as Preventic and Seresto. (While there are non-chemical preventatives, they’ve generally not been shown to be effective.) Remember that even if you’ve used these products, you’ll still see ticks crawling on your dog, but they won’t bite and attach.

One other option is to vaccinate your dog for Lyme disease. It won’t prevent tick bites, but it prevents the disease.


Flea season typically begins in May and peaks in early fall. In higher elevations, you may not have as much of a problem with fleas, but contrary to popular opinion, it’s not the elevation that deters these little blood-suckers, but the dry air. And it’s important to remember that even if your dog doesn’t have fleas where you live, there can still be fleas on rodents even in the high Sierra, so avoid contact with them.

Most often, fleas prefer your dog’s head, abdomen, and the base of his tail, but they can live anywhere on a dog’s body. You’ll usually realize you have a flea problem when you notice your pup incessantly chewing and scratching, since flea bites are very irritating.

Again, as with ticks, the best remedy is prevention. Many spot-on and oral medications also prevent fleas, and flea-and-tick collars can deter fleas unless your dog already has an infestation.


Wait a minute, you may be saying: what does heartworm have to do with spring?

For the answer, take a look at the life-cycle of the heartworm: it begins with an infected animal being bitten by a mosquito, which sucks up the heartworm microfilaria (small, thread-like worms). These worms then burrow into your dog or cat though the mosquito’s bite wound, and work their way into the animal’s heart, where they grow rapidly in size, sometimes up to 14 inches long.

Eventually, the worms develop into a twisted and intertwined mass, which block the flow of blood to the heart. Symptoms of heartworm can range from coughing and unusual lethargy to severe anemia, heart failure, and death.

With our remarkably wet winter, standing water is everywhere this spring… and standing water means mosquitos in abundance. That means we could have a greater-than-normal incidence of heartworm infection in our companion animals.

So, what’s the answer? Once more, prevention is key. You can choose between spot-on preventatives such as Revolution and Advantage, or oral medications like Heartgard and Sentinel. And if you’re saying you can’t afford heartworm preventative, here’s an eye-opener: Treatment for heartworm entails injections and sometimes hospitalization, at a cost of $500-$1,000. The average cost of heartworm preventative is between $5 and $15 a month. Doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure that one out.

So enjoy the beautiful weather, enjoy getting outside with your dog, and keep him from being “bugged” this season!

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue .

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