Intestinal parasites, including roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, tapeworms, giardia, and coccidia can present a serious health risk to your pets. In addition, some of these are zoonotic diseases, meaning they can infect people as well as animals. All dogs and cats are susceptible to intestinal parasites, but some are more vulnerable than others. Even pets that do not seem to be at risk from parasites can become infected. For example, indoor cats may hunt lizards or insects and acquire intestinal parasites from them. In addition, feeding your dog or cat raw meat can expose him or her to parasitic infection. Kittens and puppies are much more commonly infected with worms than are older animals so we generally recommend fecal testing and deworming of all young animals.
The most common intestinal parasites of pets in Florida include:
- Roundworms – Adult roundworms live in the intestinal tracts of their hosts and consume that host’s food. Adult dogs and cats are infected by ingesting larvae, usually from contaminated soil or infected prey (such as a mouse or other small mammal). Puppies and kittens can be born with roundworms after contracting them from their mother’s uterus during gestation. They can also ingest roundworm larvae in their mothers’ milk. Symptoms of roundworm infection include: diarrhea, vomiting, pot-bellied appearance, coughing, weight loss and a dull hair coat.
- Hookworms – The hookworm is known as a plug feeder because it attaches itself to the intestinal wall of its host and feeds on its blood. Adult dogs and cats get hookworms from contact with contaminated soil that contains hookworm larvae. The larvae can be ingested by the animal or they can enter the body by burrowing through the skin or feet. Nursing puppies can be infected by ingesting hookworm larvae in their mothers’ milk. Because they feed on the host’s blood, symptoms of hookworm infection include: pale mucus membranes, weakness, diarrhea (often bloody), and/or weight loss.
- Whipworms – This parasite lives in the large intestine, where it bites and embeds it’s head inside the tissue. Like the hookworm, the whipworm sucks the host’s blood for sustenance. Animals are infected with whipworms by ingesting whipworm eggs that live in the soil (typically ingested through self-grooming). The primary symptom of whipworm infection is bloody diarrhea, which can lead to anemia.
- Tapeworms – There are two main types of tapeworms seen in our area. The first is known as Dipylidium caninum and commonly affects dogs and cats. These are long, flat (tape-like) worms that attach to the small intestine of their host. A tapeworm body is several inches long but consists of multiple segments. These individual segments break off the main body of the worm and are often described as resembling a grain of rice. Pets get this type of tapeworm from ingesting fleas. Infection with Dipylidium tapeworms does not generally cause severe symptoms in dogs and cats.
The second type of tapeworm, Physaloptera, is less common, but more pathogenic than Dipylidium. The larvae have been found in several species of insects (including beetles, cockroaches, and crickets), mice and frogs. The dog or cat is infected when he or she ingests an infected intermediate host. Infections can cause gastritis that can result in vomiting, anorexia, anemia, and dark or bloody stool.
- Giardia – There are numerous species of Giardia, which are single celled parasites. These organisms attach to cells in the small intestine, leading to maldigestion, malabsorption, diarrhea (often bloody), and weight loss. Giardia is shed in the stool of affected animals and infection occurs when Giardia cysts are ingested. Pets may drink contaminated water, eat off the ground where contaminated soil is present, or ingest cysts when self-grooming after coming into contact with contaminated soil or stool.
- Coccidia – Like Giardia, Coccidia are single-celled organisms. Dogs and cats contract coccidia parasites when they ingest infected stool. Puppies and kittens are far more susceptible to infection than are adults, which usually possess sufficient immunity to suppress symptoms of the parasite. The most common symptoms of a coccidia infection include watery diarrhea (often bloody), loss of appetite, vomiting, dehydration and even death.
In order to protect the health of your pets and your family it is important to have your dogs and cats tested regularly for intestinal parasites and to practice safe handling of fecal matter. Fortunately, there are many safe and effective products we can recommend to both treat and prevent these infections.
Please call us today to discuss parasite protection for your pets.