Foxtails, fleas cause problems for pets


Foxtails and fleas are the twin scourges of summer, and their ranks grow daily during the spring.

They are tough on our pets and our pocketbooks, and only through constant work and vigilance do we stand a chance against them.

Foxtail seeds -- encased in a sticky, spike-shaped carrier -- are spread by passing animals. The hitchhiking becomes a problem when the spike gets its tip into an animal's flesh, because a foxtail moves in only one direction -- forward. Long-haired and flop-eared dogs have the most problems, but any dog can pick up a foxtail in one of these problem areas:

Feet: Limping and licking are signs that a foxtail has found a home, probably between the dog's toes. If caught early, the foxtail can be pulled out easily before causing major damage, but if allowed to form an abscess it has to be removed at the vet's, often under anesthesia. To prevent problems, keep hair between the toes closely cropped and check your dog's feet often.

Ears: Because of the burrowing nature of foxtails, every head shake drives the pest farther down into the ear. The shaking may stop eventually, but it doesn't mean the foxtail has worked its way out. Animals are often able to ignore the presence of a foreign body such as a foxtail, especially if it has softened over time, but it's important that treatment not be ignored. A dog with a foxtail in its ear may develop a chronic foreign-body reaction and infection, involving veterinary care more difficult and costly than pulling a foxtail. It's by far less traumatic and cheaper to see the vet at the first sign of a problem.

Nose: Because dogs like to sniff, foxtails often lodge in the nose. The signs are obvious -- sneezing, sometimes violently, sometimes accompanied by bleeding or discharge. Sneezing almost never dislodges a foxtail; in fact, the violent passage of air usually works to drive it in deeper. Early treatment is again the key, since a foxtail in the nose will cause an infection and can even work its way into the lungs and into the spinal column.

These are the main problem areas, but the fact is the foxtail can get a foothold anywhere. The best way to deal with foxtails is prevention. Keep your yard clear of weeds and steer clear of areas dense with the pest while you're out with your dog. Go over your dog carefully after every walk, pulling the foxtails out before they get a chance to dig in.

If you miss one, remember that once a foxtail is embedded, it isn't going away. This is one problem that needs to be treated by your vet as soon as possible.

Fleas can also become a major health problem, especially for those animals that are allergic to the bites. For them, constant scratching flares into hair loss, hot spots and disastrous patches of open sores -- all of which require veterinary attention.

The best way to fight fleas is with a regularly scheduled routine of prevention, treating fleas in the house, the yard and on the pet at the same time.

If you're treating your pet only, you're missing most of the fleas. That's because the pests spend most of their lives off their hosts, and the only way to fight them is to go where they live.

Send the pets out for a flea bath and dip, and spray the house and yard while they're gone. Ask your veterinarian which of the many insecticides works best in your area, and be sure to use a product that combines both "quick-kill" compounds with chemicals called "insect growth restrictors" or IGRs. Quick-kill products terminate the adult fleas but don't affect eggs, while IGRs work on the next generation by keeping young fleas from developing into adults. The last few years have seen an introduction of many products that combine both.

After your house and pet have been treated, your best weapons for keeping the flea population down are your vacuum cleaner and washing machine. Make sure your pet has washable bedding, and throw it in the washer frequently to remove adults, eggs and larvae. Vacuum pet areas constantly, taking care to vacuum up some flea powder into the bag. Even with powder in the bag, however, it's important to dispose of the bag frequently, otherwise your vacuum will become a flea nursery.

Q: I think one of the best ways to end animal abuse is at the consumer level. Where can I get a list of products that are made at the expense of laboratory animals?

A: I can't help you with that, but I can offer you the flip side: a list of companies that do not test their products on animals, do not use animal ingredients in the products, or both.

The information is available from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. There is no charge for the literature, which is available from PETA, P.O. Box 42516, Washington, D.C. 20015-0516.

You may also be interested in two recent books that offer similar tips on what animal-rights activists call "cruelty-free living." The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals offering is "The Animal Rights Handbook: Everyday Ways To Save Animal Lives" ($4.95; Living Planet Press), while PETA has released "Save the Animals! 101 Easy Thing You Can Do" ($4.95; Warner Books).

Q: We really seem to have a hard time keeping our Persian from matting. Is there something we could do for her or feed her to keep her coat untangled?

A: The silky hair of Persians and most other long-haired breeds, although lovely, shifts the burden of grooming from the cat to its owner.

There are three options for keeping a pet's coat in good shape. The one you choose depends on your lifestyle and finances.

The best approach is to brush and comb your cat every day (or at least every other day). If grooming starts when an animal's young, it will learn to cooperate and even enjoy the sessions. If you've never groomed your cat, start with brief sessions and lots of praise and stroking.

The second option is regular professional grooming. Although mats will probably form between sessions, a monthly visit to a good groomer will keep the problem manageable.

A groomer should also handle the third option -- a complete shave-down every few months. Although obviously the worst of the three choices from the standpoint of both aesthetics and health, the periodic removable of coat is still better than infection and insect infestation.

Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278

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