Intestinal parasites are a common problem in our animal companions. Depending on the type of worm and the age of the host, their impact varies from merely disgusting to downright dangerous. In fact, intestinal worms are one of the primary causes of or contributors to illness in our dogs and cats.
Which worms are which?
Hookworms and roundworms are the most problematic. Hookworms are very tiny and rarely observed by the naked eye. To detect a hookworm infestation, you must look at the animal’s stool microscopically. This will allow you to see eggs that look like bubble-filled footballs. Hookworms actually attach to the lining of the small intestine where they suck blood much like a little vampire. The clinical signs include diarrhea with a characteristic blackish appearance and strong odor, vomiting, weight loss and anemia.
Roundworms are larger and easily seen with the naked eye. They are round and white and resemble spaghetti. Roundworms can be passed in the stool or may be vomited if the worm burden is high enough. They live free within the lumen of the small intestine where they absorb nutrients from their environment. Symptoms include vomiting, weight loss, poor appetite and diarrhea. Roundworms are easily detected on fecal examination. Their eggs are round with a thick bumpy outer layer.
Young animals are most at risk
Hookworm and roundworm infections are most deleterious to very young animals. In fact, puppies and kittens are actually born infected with these two parasites. Most adult dogs and cats have encysted larvae in tissues outside the gastrointestinal tract. Even though these animals are negative on a fecal examination, they still harbor the parasites. When a bitch or queen becomes pregnant, a signal is sent to these larvae, instructing them to wake up and move. They proceed to hatch from their cysts and cross the placenta to infect the developing fetus.
The small size of the pup or kitten combined with his immature immune system allows these parasites to rapidly overtake the youngster. Hookworms will cause anemia and death if left untreated. Roundworms can actually block the intestinal tract, leading to death from intestinal obstruction.
A deworming program should be started as early as four weeks of age. Pyrantel is the dewormer of choice for these parasites. It is safe for young animals even when given in amounts well exceeding the therapeutic dose.
Dealing with worms in adults
Hookworms and roundworms rarely cause serious problems in healthy adults. The mature immune system of an adult dog or cat generally keeps the infestation to a minimum that is well tolerated by the host. The transmission to adult animals occurs by the fecal oral route or by larvae penetrating the footpads. Proper hygiene in the yard and litter box will go a long way to prevent this transmission.
We need to remember that it is inherently detrimental for a parasite to kill its host. Most healthy animals develop a symbiotic relationship with their parasites. What we do need to consider is the zoonotic potential of these worms. In other words, hookworms and roundworms can infect humans, especially children. The effects of migrating parasites in a child can be devastating. Symptoms include red tracts in the skin and eye inflammation that can cause blindness in some cases. Cases of encephalitis due to migration of worm larvae through the nervous system have also been reported.
Deworming in adult dogs is generally accomplished with a product called Drontal. It removes most of the common parasites known to infect dogs and cats: hookworms, roundworms, whipworms and tapeworms. It is more potent than Pyrantal and should not be used in animals under ten pounds, pregnant or nursing animals and animals with compromised liver or kidney function.
Other common parasites
Coccidea are single-celled organisms that live in the intestinal tract of dogs and cats. Once again, coccidea cause more of a problem for puppies and kittens because of their immature immune systems. The symptoms include decreased appetite and a characteristic bloody, mucoid stool often compared to raspberry jam. This organism is easily picked up from exposure to the dam’s stool during the first weeks of life. Coccidea can be difficult to find on a routine fecal examination and several successive stool samples may be required. A sulfa-type antibiotic such as Albon is generally quite effective against this organism.
Whipworms are tiny thread-like worms that inhabit the large intestine of the dog. These worms are frequently difficult to find on a routine stool examination. Symptoms are variable and non-specific: weight loss, periodic vomiting or diarrhea, or lack of appetite. This is the one worm that is more likely to affect adult dogs. It is spread by fecal oral transmission. Whipworms have no zoonotic potential, and are easily cleared using Drontal.
Tapeworms are segmented worms that appear as grains of dried rice on the hair around the animal’s anus. You may even see them alive and wiggling on the fur or on your floors. Tapeworms definitely go in the disgusting category, although they cause few problems for the host animal. They may cause diarrhea or lack of appetite, but more often than not they cause no clinical signs. Tapeworms are transmitted to your animal through the ingestion of a flea, so controlling fleas is the main method of preventing infections. To clear tapeworms already present, Droncit, Drontal or Cestex are all effective.
Natural support for animal parasites
Consider feeding a species appropriate raw diet. A raw food diet keeps the gut healthy. Because 70% of an animal’s immune function comes from the gut, a healthy GI tract and immune system will allow your companion’s body to function in the way it was designed to, and will naturally keep parasites at a minimum. Raw food also contains enzymes, which have strong anti-parasitic properties. Most low-end commercial diets are lacking these essential nutrients.
Many natural deworming products are also available. Several herbal combinations have anti-parasitic activity, while food grade diatomaceous earth works by causing the parasite to dehydrate and die. Most of these wormers are safe and have various degrees of efficacy. Consult a holistic vet for the right remedies and dosages for your animal.
Although intestinal worms can be a major issue, a quality diet and good hygiene are key ways to help prevent an infestation. If a problem does occur, prompt diagnosis and the correct medication can usually clear it up and restore your best friend to wellness.