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June 10, 2022

How To Prevent and Treat Parasites in Small Mammals

by Dianne Cook, LVT

Parasites are a pain. Plain and simple. Some parasites come to the party like a wrecking ball, causing immediate discomfort and obvious symptoms, while others prefer to hang back and stay quiet, only making themselves known when they’re least expected. Luckily, many of the most pathogenic parasites can be prevented and treated with the assistance of high-quality, species-appropriate diet, top-notch husbandry, and exotics-savvy veterinary care.  

What Are Parasites? 

A parasite is an organism that lives on or within another living creature (called a “host”), feeding and multiplying at the host’s expense. While some parasites, like lice, are species-specific (meaning they only target one kind of animal or closely related species), there are others that can infect any animal they contact. This includes zoonotic varieties of parasites that can be transmitted from animal to human or vice versa (i.e., E. Cuniculi).   

There are two classifications of parasites, each affecting their host in different ways:

Endoparasites

Otherwise known as internal parasites, are pesky creatures that live and multiply inside your pet’s body. Though many people think of intestinal worms when they think of endoparasites, there are also numerous varieties of parasitic protozoa (one-celled organisms) that can cause serious health concerns in our small furry friends. Though many internal parasites target the digestive tract, others may impact the lungs, liver, kidneys, or central nervous system.  

Common symptoms of endoparasites include (but are not limited to): 

  • Weight loss 
  • Abnormal fecal output (consistency, frequency, size, shape, etc) 
  • Lethargy 
  • Changes in appetite or thirst 
  • Head tilt (head tipped to the side) 
  • Ataxia (stumbling) or weakness 
  • Uncontrollable spinning or rolling

Ectoparasites

Also commonly called external parasites, are the tiny creatures that take up residency on the outside of your little one’s body, typically within the haircoat and/or ears. The most troublesome aspect of external parasites is the fact that many types can remain dormant for years and can easily be brought into the home and unknowingly spread throughout the environment through contaminated clothing, other household animals, or infested bedding. They also tend to be incredibly hardy and difficult to notice until they’ve multiplied to the point of a full-blown invasion. As if that isn’t bad enough, some species, like certain varieties of fleas and mites, are perfectly happy dining on any living being in the home, be that pet or pet parent.  

Common symptoms of ectoparasites include (but are not limited to): 

  • Dull, patchy haircoat 
  • Excessive itching and scratching 
  • Scabby or inflamed skin 
  • Flaky, crusty, or scaly skin 
  • Bumps, hives, or open sores 
  • Red, inflamed ears 

How Do Pets Get Parasites? 

Parasite transmission depends on several factors, but most often occurs when a pet comes into contact with a contaminated environment or infected animal. Endoparasites usually invade the body when the host animal (e.g., your pet) inadvertently ingests parasitic eggs or spores from infected soil, food, water, feces, or urine. Ectoparasites tend to nestle into fabric, carpets, bedding, and upholstery and remain dormant (sometimes for years) until an unsuspecting pet or human walks by and wakes them up. Both internal and external parasites can also be unknowingly brought into the home via another pet (like a dog or cat) or on a pet parents’ shoes or clothing. Some parasites can also be passed from mother to offspring in utero or via nursing.  

Parasite Prevention 

Prevention is often much easier, not to mention less costly, than treatment. Luckily, the simplest and most reliable way to keep parasites at bay is by providing a tidy living space, wholesome diet, and routine veterinary care for all species of companion animals living in the home. 

Following a daily spot cleaning and weekly deep cleaning routine for your little one’s enclosure and exercise space(s) will help keep external parasites at bay and will ensure you are promptly aware of any stool abnormalities or changes in appetite or water intake. Feeding a high-quality, species-appropriate diet will help your furry friend remain in peak systemic health, allowing their bodies a better chance of resisting a parasitic assault. Make sure to remove any food, hay, or water that becomes contaminated with urine or feces as promptly as possible. It is also important to remove any fresh fruits or veggies before they start to wilt or mold. 

Keeping up with routine veterinary well-visits for all your furry family members is also strongly recommended. Not only will your trusted veterinarian help keep your exotic munchkin(s) in good health, but they can also develop an appropriate parasite prevention protocol for any larger companion animals in the home. By ensuring all household pets are parasite free, you can feel confident you are doing everything you can to keep each of your furry friends as happy and healthy as possible. 

Treatment Time 

Unfortunately, despite our very best preventative efforts, there are times parasites still raise their ugly little heads. Appropriate treatment is different depending on what kind of parasite(s) your pet is dealing with, so it is imperative to work with an exotics savvy veterinarian for proper diagnosis and effective treatment. While there are numerous “over the counter” animal-centric medications intended to cure parasites, many of these products are ineffective and can be quite unsafe for small mammals. Only use meds or other treatment options as prescribed by your veterinarian. 

Because cross-contamination between household pets is a genuine concern, all animals within the home will typically need to be treated, even if they are asymptomatic (not showing any signs or symptoms). Once treatment is complete and everyone in the home is officially parasite free, it may seem like a good idea to put your small pet on a monthly topical parasite preventative (like those used on cats and dogs). While intentions may be pure, do not use any of these products unless it is explicitly suggested, and properly dosed, by your veterinarian.

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