Unseen parasites lurking inside your pets can cause harm to their health as well as your and your family’s health.

Intestinal parasites are something most people don’t think about. They are generally unseen and can go undetected for long periods before causing a problem. Springtime marks the beginning of the intestinal parasite season, as these parasites need warmth and humidity to reproduce. The common intestinal parasites in Maine are hookworms, roundworms, whipworms, tapeworms, giardia, and coccidia. Dogs and cats are the primary targets for these parasites, but people can also be infected. Small children and the elderly are at the highest risk. Families with pets and small children should be especially aware of the risks posed by intestinal parasites. Though parasites can be a problem, prevention is actually quite easy. A few simple steps can go a long way to keeping your household safe.

            Hookworms are a type of worm that targets the lining of the intestine. Their mouth parts contain barbs or “hooks” that help them attach to the lining, where they actually suck blood like a leach. A severe infection in a small puppy or kitten can cause a life-threatening anemia.

            Roundworms are very common, especially in puppies. They are occasionally vomited up, or seen in the stool, where they look like a piece of spaghetti. Large numbers of worms can stunt growth or cause gastro-intestinal upset including diarrhea.

            Whipworms target the large intestine. They have a whip-like tail that they use to attach to the intestinal lining. Whipworms can cause diarrhea, colitis, and in severe cases anemia when large numbers damage the intestinal lining leading to bleeding. They can be difficult to detect, even when they are causing a clinical problem.

            There are two common types of tapeworms, one of which is carried by fleas and the other by mice. Tapeworms are most commonly seen in cats. The egg packets look like sesame seeds and can be found stuck to the hair around the tail. Tapeworm infections are generally asymptomatic.

            Giardia is a diarrhea causing protozoal parasite. It is typically found in contaminated water, surviving for extended periods in the environment. We see infections in dogs most commonly, both with or without diarrhea. The parasite can be difficult to find on standard fecal tests, so more advanced testing is often done if there is a suspicion of Giardia.

            Coccidia are common in puppies and kittens, causing intermittent diarrhea that can become severe with blood and mucus seen. They are difficult to get rid of, often requiring multiple treatments.

            Intestinal parasites can affect people. Most infections come from contact with contaminated soil, though direct transmission can occur via fecal-oral contact. Young children are at the highest risk, as they are more likely to play in contaminated areas and put their fingers in their mouths. The most concerning of the parasites are the roundworms. Two conditions can result from infection: visceral larval migrans and ocular larval migrans. In both cases, the parasite is not in its normal host, so migrates through the body, affecting virtually any body system. In ocular larval migrans, the parasite actually gets into the eye and can cause blindness. Hookworms can cause a similar migration and may be seen burrowing under the skin. Whipworms and tapeworms rarely cause infection; if they do it is generally asymptomatic.

            Though intestinal parasites can cause problems in people, prevention is easy and human infection rare. General hygiene is important, including hand washing after playing outdoors or with your pet. Picking up stool promptly in the yard, or always when on a walk with your dog prevents soil contamination. It also helps keep our environment clean for everyone to enjoy. Many of the monthly preventative medications for fleas, ticks, and heartworms also deworm your dog or cat for the common intestinal parasites. This means that once a month you are also protecting your pet and family from intestinal parasites, a reason why yea-round preventatives are recommended. Regular fecal parasite tests by your veterinarian are important. At least twice a year is recommended, once in the spring and then again in the fall. There is no universal dewormer, so fecal testing is valuable to identify parasites that are not killed by the regular monthly preventatives.

            It is good to know more about intestinal parasites to help protect pets and people. If a worm is found in your pets stool, it is best to take the stool sample to your veterinarian for testing so the most effective treatment can be given. Following your veterinarians’ recommendations for general parasite prevention and picking up after your dog will go a long way towards keeping everyone safe.


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