Warm weather gets everyone outdoors more, especially our four-legged friends. One of our favorite places to take them is to the park for long walks as well the dog park to play with other dogs. Lots of cats spend more time roaming, and will use all types of places as their litter box. While this is great to burn some energy and get some exercise, I am always a bit concerned about the risk for intestinal parasites whenever pets spend a lot of time outside in public places. Dogs and cats can pick up parasitic infections by ingesting infected water or soil, or grooming fur or paws that have been contaminated. Animals that are currently infected with intestinal parasites pass microscopic eggs or infectious larvae in their feces, which infects the environment for a limited period of time.
The most common intestinal parasite that
we see in dogs and cats is roundworms. Roundworms live in the small intestines and take nutrients away from their host. They can even cause intestinal problems like diarrhea. The next common worm we see in dogs is hookworms; they are much less prevalent in cats. These worms actually bite into the lining of the intestines and feed off of the blood of their host. The risk of leaving this infection untreated is severe anemia and malnutrition. Puppies and kittens commonly become infected with either worm from their mom either before birth or from nursing. The least common worm we see in clinic is probably the whipworm. This worm also embeds itself into the intestinal wall and can lead to severe diarrhea and malnourishment when the infection is high, but most are subclinical. Treatment for whipworms can be difficult as well because the eggs are much hardier in the environment, so many pets can re-infect themselves.
Tapeworms are another commonly seen parasite, but infection occurs a little bit differently. The only way cats and dogs can become infected is by ingesting infected fleas or lice during grooming. Infections are usually diagnosed when small tapeworm segments are visualized underneath the tail around the anus or in the stool. These segments look like little flat grains of rice or sesame seeds. Keeping your pet on monthly flea prevention is the best way to prevent tapeworm infections from occurring.
Kittens, and sometimes puppies, often come in with a protozoal parasite called coccidia that is not visible except underneath the microscope. Coccidia can damage the lining of the intestines which prevents the kitten/puppy from absorbing nutrients. They can develop severe diarrhea and become dehydrated. Adults are typically not infected because their immune systems are well developed to fight off infections. Young kittens and puppies do not have a strong enough immune system and need to be treated appropriately.
The simplest way to determine if your pet has an intestinal parasite is to have a fecal test performed by your veterinarian—this should be a standard part of their annual visit. This procedure will identify the type of parasite and what the appropriate treatment course should be. While many monthly heartworm preventions contain a deworming product, your pet can still contract worms not covered and will need to be treated. Keeping your pets leashed and preventing them from ingesting anything while out in public areas a good first line of defense, followed a good bath or wipe down when you get home. Maintaining good hygiene in multi-pet households is imperative to prevent the spread of intestinal parasite infections. Since hookworms and roundworms are zoonotic, it is important to maintain good personal hygiene as well. Make sure that children do not run barefoot in backyards with pets that are infected. Any sand boxes must be kept covered when not in use. I also don’t recommend taking small children to dog parks and always have them wash their hands. If you have any questions or want to have your pet checked for worms make an appointment at your veterinarian or at the Louisiana SPCA Community Clinic.