Get to know your worm
Intestinal worms are more than just a nuisance that can cause your dog or cat discomfort – they can also pose serious health risks to your pet, you and your family. As a pet owner, the main intestinal worm species you should be aware of are roundworms, tapeworms, hookworms, and whipworm. Knowing how your pet can be exposed to these intestinal parasites is important in helping reduce the risk to yourself and your family, too.
Long, white and spaghetti-like, roundworms are common intestinal worms found in both cats and dogs.
- Symptoms: Adult dogs and cats may show no obvious signs, but puppies and kittens are more severely affected and can even die from heavy roundworm burdens. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy, poor coat condition, and young animals may display a potbelly and slow growth.
- How dogs and cats can get roundworms: Puppies can be infested in utero and puppies and kittens can also be infested through the milk. Infected pets pass roundworm eggs out through their faeces, and the eggs find their way into the soil. Pets ingest eggs for example when they are sniffing around the ground or playing with a toy in a contaminated area.
- How people can get roundworms: If people accidentally swallow these eggs, the larvae of this parasite can travel around the body causing life-threatening conditions.
Tapeworms are segmented worms that live in the small intestine of infected pets. Tapeworms can sometimes be seen in the pet’s faeces, or around the anus, resembling tiny crawling rice grains.
- Symptoms: Most infections are asymptomatic. However, they can cause irritation around the bottom, unexplained weight loss, diarrhoea and vomiting.
- How dogs and cats get tapeworms: Segments containing eggs are released from the worm and pass out in the pet’s faeces, remaining mobile for some time. Secondary hosts such as grazing animals, rodents, lizards or even flea larvae ingest the eggs. Worms mature, and pets are infected by eating the secondary host. The most common tapeworm is called the ‘flea tapeworm,’ and as its name suggests, it is contracted when pets swallow infected fleas.
- How people can get tapeworms: People become infected with tapeworms when they ingest the tapeworm eggs or accidentally swallow an infected flea. This is uncommon but can be very dangerous. For example, the hydatid tapeworm causes cysts to develop in the body of humans, even in the brain.
Hookworms are found in dogs and cats. These worms latch on to the lining of your pet’s intestine with their sharp teeth and feed on your pet’s blood.
- Symptoms: Adult animals may not show any symptoms. Symptoms are more commonly seen in younger animals and can include diarrhoea containing blood, and anaemia. This can quickly lead to death if not treated.
- How dogs and cats can get hookworms: Hookworms can be picked up if your pet eats or walks on soil containing hookworm larvae as hookworm larvae can penetrate through the skin, or if they eat another infected animal (e.g. rodent, bird). Puppies can also be infected through the milk.
- How people can get hookworms: If people walk barefoot over soil containing hookworm larvae, the larvae can burrow into the skin and cause intense itching. Larvae can also be accidentally ingested.
In Australia, whipworm infects dogs, not cats. As the name suggests, whipworm resembles a whip, with a thicker front end and a longer, thinner back end.
- Symptoms: If low numbers of worms are present, dogs may not show symptoms, but in heavy infestations the worms cause damage to the intestines, which can lead to diarrhoea containing fresh blood (bright red) and mucous and straining.
- How dogs get whipworm: Pets prone to rummaging in the soil can accidentally ingest whipworm eggs that are on the ground from another dog’s faeces.
- How people can get whipworm: Dog whipworm is not considered a zoonotic threat – in other words, there is little risk of catching this parasite by coming into contact with faeces from your pet.
How to prevent worms in your pet
Regularly worming your dog or cat is advisable, not just for the health of your pet, but to help protect you and your family from the potentially harmful effects of parasites.
The usual recommendation for adult cats and dogs is to worm them at least every three months.
There are a variety of options available for worming your pets, including spot-on treatments such as Advocate for dogs and cats. Monthly treatment with Advocate also controls fleas and heartworm.
Armed with your newfound knowledge of worms, as well as proper preventative measures, you can ensure your pet remains healthy, fit and protected from the nasty effects of intestinal worms.