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Parasites & Worms: What Every Pet Owner Needs To Know

Your pet has worms…

What course of action should you take, how serious is it, how did this happen? All these questions and more are coursing through your mind. As a responsible pet owner, you have taken precautions to make sure that your pet is well cared for and loved. You've bought a dependable Dog Collar and Dog Tag. You've done everything you can to make your pet safe - but still, your pet has worms. The answers to this problem depend on several issues.

In many cases, you may not even know that your dog has worms without having the stool analyzed under a microscope. The four most common intestinal parasites are tapeworms, roundworms, hookworms and whipworms. Some infestations can cause few or no symptoms. In fact, some worm eggs or larvae can be dormant in the dog’s body and activated only in times of stress, or in the case of roundworms and hookworms, until the later stages of pregnancy, when they activate and infest the pre natal puppies. Certain intestinal parasites such as tapeworm and roundworm, however, are usually clearly visible. They are readily seen in fresh feces or near the anus on the dog’s skin or fur.

Intestinal parasites of dogs and cats are potential health hazards for humans, too. Roundworm eggs, if ingested, can cause a disease called “visceral larval migrans”. Tiny worm larvae migrate through the human’s intestinal wall and into body tissues. They can then grow to larger size almost anywhere in the body. Roundworms are not spread to people by close contact with dogs or cats. The individual must ingest the infective stage of the roundworm eggs. Because the eggs are primarily contained within the feces, humans would need to consume the egg contaminated feces for contagion to occur. If hookworm larvae penetrate the skin they can cause “cutaneous larval migrans”, a potentially serious and scarring inflammation may result. Children are at most serious risk for infestation, especially if play behavior is in an environment where dog, cat, or raccoon feces may be present, such as in a sandbox.

Symptoms of worms in dogs may include
Weight loss
Gastrointestinal disturbances
Diarrhea
Anemia
Scratching, particularly around the base of the tail
Vomiting
Mild to severe coughing
Eating a great deal without putting on weight
Bad breath

What action should you take?
When it comes to getting rid of worms many people head straight for over-the-counter treatments. These may be far too harsh and often less effective, than your veterinarian’s prescribed treatment, in ridding your pet of these parasites. Some may even do more harm than good. Most, if not all, conventional de-worming treatments, are chemically-based and may be harmful to your pet in the long-term. Continued de-worming with conventional products may also weaken your pet’s immune system. In some cases, apart from slight irritation, your pet may not be too concerned about a mild worm infestation. On the other hand, some internal parasites can be life-threatening, especially in large numbers. Some pets can even develop a hypersensitivity to worms, which may cause serious complications.

Early diagnosis for the presence and type of intestinal parasite is very important. Depending upon which kind of worm is present, a certain type of wormer may have to be used. All worms do not respond to the same treatment. No individual wormer works against all kinds of parasites. Some non-prescription wormers are quite ineffective in removing worms from the dog. Your veterinarian will have the best kinds of wormers for the particular type of parasite. If you are concerned about your pet’s symptoms consult your veterinarian for advice before resorting to over-the-counter remedies. Please take the worming advice of your veterinarian seriously and adhere to strict sanitation principles, especially when pets and children are in close contact.

Prevention
Remove dog feces from yards at least weekly, work with your veterinarian and have your dog’s feces checked frequently in persistent cases. Do not mix wormers and do not use any wormer if your dog is currently taking other medications, including Heartworm preventative, without consulting the veterinarian. In persistent re-infestations, some veterinarians will prescribe worming treatments on a routine basis. Generally, prescription wormers will be safer and more effective. When walking your dog in the neighborhood or park, remove all feces, so that your dog does not contribute to the contamination of soil. Dogs that are in generally good condition may not act threatened by worm infestations or even show signs of having worms. However, it’s a good idea to keep your dog as worm-free as possible. In the event that disease or stresses do occur, your pet has greater reserves to handle the problem.

Heartworm
(Dirofilaria immitis) is a parasitic worm which infects mostly dogs. However, more vets are realizing that cats may also be infected with heartworm. Although all internal parasites can be harmful to the health of your pet, heartworm infestation is serious and can be fatal unless treated in time. See your veterinarian and have your pet checked on a regular basis for heartworm.

Tapeworms
The tapeworm is transmitted to dogs and cats that ingest fleas or that hunt and eat wildlife or rodents infested with tapeworms or fleas. Tapeworms can reach 4 to 6 inches in length within the intestine. Many cases are diagnosed simply by seeing the tiny terminal segments attached to the pet’s fur around the anus or under the tail. These segments of the tapeworm contain the eggs. Tapeworms cannot be killed by the typical generic, over-the-counter wormers; see the veterinarian for prescription-only treatment that really works.

Roundworms
If the pregnant dog has intestinal parasites and encysted larvae in her tissues, the pups will be born with microscopically small roundworm larvae in their tissues. The larvae are transmitted by migrating through the mom’s tissues into the growing fetus in the uterus. The nursing puppy can also ingest the larvae through the mom’s milk. The larvae get into the intestinal tract and can grow to five inches in length. The eggs that the adult worms pass in the stool can now re-infest the same puppy or other dogs, if the egg-bearing stool is eaten. When the worm eggs hatch, larvae are released internally to migrate to the animal’s lungs. Once here, the larvae are coughed up, swallowed and finally grow up to adults in the small intestine. Repeated exposure to egg-bearing stool or contaminated soil can cause exponential numbers of parasites in a dog. A severe infestation can cause death by intestinal blockage. Females can produce 200 thousand eggs in a day. Eggs are protected by a hard shell and can exist in the soil for years. Roundworms can infest adult dogs, too. However, the larvae can encyst in the body tissue of adult dogs and remain dormant for periods of time. They can activate during the last stages of pregnancy to infest the puppies, as mentioned earlier. Worming the mother has no effect on the encysted larvae in the body tissues and cannot prevent the worms from infecting the newborn. Almost all wormers work only on the adult parasites in the intestinal tract.

Hookworms
Dogs get hookworms from larval migration in the uterus, from contact with the larvae in stool-contaminated soil or from ingesting the eggs after birth. As with roundworms, the hookworm larvae can be transferred to the nursing pup from the mother’s milk. Chronic hookworm infestation is a common cause of older dogs not performing optimally, having poor feeding competence and weight maintenance, and having poor stamina. Signs include bloody diarrhea, weight loss, anemia, and progressive weakness. A veterinarian diagnosis is made by examining the feces for eggs under a microscope.

Whipworm
This parasite is seen more often in dogs than cats. It usually resides in the large intestine. Infestations are usually difficult to confirm because the whipworms shed comparatively few eggs. An examination of stool samples may not always expose the presence of whipworms. Telltale signs may include chronic weight loss and the dog may also pass feces that appear to have a mucous-like covering. This is particularly noticeable in the last portion of the stool. Dogs who reside in a kennel or an area where whipworms are known to be common, are likely to be suspected of whipworm infestation. The whipworm is seldom a cause of death, however, they can be an annoyance for the dog and difficult to diagnose. The veterinarian may subscribe specific whipworm medication. Repeated wormings may be necessary, particularly if there is the likelihood that the dog may become re-infested.

To learn more about parasites of man and animals visit the Centers for Disease Control at http://www.cdc.gov and search for “Prevention of Zoonotic Transmission of Ascarids and Hookworms of Dogs and Cats”.

References: Centers for Disease Control, ThePetCenter.com, Natural-Pet-Info.org