Worms crawl in, worms crawl out
Parasites are organisms that cause varying degrees of illness in our pets, ranging from mild symptoms such as diarrhea, to debilitating disease and potentially death.
Some also are capable of causing infections in humans, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
Parasites are generally divided into two broad categories: internal and external.
The internal parasites include worms and protozoal organisms and are more likely than their external counterparts to cause problems. Fortunately, with regular exams and the appropriate medical therapy, we can prevent long-term infestations from developing and keep not only our pets healthy, but their families as well.
Roundworms (ascarids, hookworms and whipworms) are, as their name implies, round-shaped worms that can vary in length from a couple of centimeters to several inches. They attach to the intestines of dogs and cats and feed on blood. In severe infestations, they can cause anemia (loss of blood) and if left untreated may result in a pet’s death.
The worms are often spread from an infected mother to her puppies/kittens either through the placenta during birth or through the milk during nursing.
Older dogs and people can be exposed by ingesting the eggs or larva of the worms. Hookworms have the additional ability to infect animals and people by the larva penetrating through the skin. All three types of roundworms are detected by identifying roundworm eggs in feces.
Roundworm infections in humans can be serious. Although these organisms are localized to the intestines in animals, in people the worms will migrate through different organs including the skin, internal organs and the eyes. Blindness can occur when ascarids invade the eyeball.
Children are most at risk because they run around outside barefoot, or play in sand boxes and are more likely to put objects, which may contain eggs or larva, in their mouths.
Tapeworms are flat worms that invade the intestines. Tapeworms attach to the intestine, but unlike roundworms, which feed off blood, tapeworms merely absorb the digested food around it. An animal infected with multiple tapeworms may have a hard time putting on weight, and, in severe cases, will lose weight. There are two main sources of infection, eating infected animals, such as a mice and rabbits, or from fleas.
People are susceptible to tapeworm infestations, although ingestion of infected meat is much more likely to cause disease than catching it from our pets. A diagnosis is made by identifying parts of the worm in the feces. These worms look similar to grains of rice and will move around the feces or into the surrounding area.
Heartworms are a major problem in Mesa County. Heartworms are a round worm that, as the name implies, invades into the heart and pulmonary (lung) vessels.
Adult worms grow to around 12-inches long and large numbers of worms can fill the right ventricle of the heart. This results in the heart valves malfunctioning and congestive heart failure. Additionally, worms can lead to embolisms in the lungs resulting in sudden death.
Heartworms are mainly a disease of dogs and mosquitoes. Infected mosquitoes bite a dog and inject larvae. The larvae then spend about six months migrating through the dog until it ends up in heart. The worms then release microfiliaria (essentially eggs) and are ingested by mosquitoes and the process starts over again.
Although cats can get heartworms, they are not a normal host and the worms cannot reproduce. They will cause severe inflammation in the heart and lungs that can lead to sudden death. People are not typically susceptible to heartworms.
Diagnosing heartworms in both dogs and cats is done through a simple blood test. Dogs diagnosed with heartworms can be treated successfully if the proper protocol is followed. The medication to kill the adult heartworms is different than the monthly therapy which kills certain larval stages.
There is no treatment for cats, but if the worm doesn’t cause a lung embolism, the worm will eventually die and be cleared by the cat’s immune system.
The easiest way to deal with heartworms is to prevent them. A pill is given each month that is designed to kill certain larval stages before they can develop into adult worms. Very rarely, the pill is not effective at killing all the larvae, and an animal can become infected with adult worms. Therefore, even though an animal is on preventive therapy year-round, testing for the presence of adult worms is still recommended.
Giardia is a protozoal organism found in water, especially ponds, streams and irrigation ditches. Once ingested, it can wreak havoc on in the gastrointestinal system. Typical symptoms include watery diarrhea that can progress to bloody diarrhea with or without mucus present. Affected animals also can have a loss of appetite and/or mild vomiting.
People are susceptible to certain strains of giardia and can have the same gastrointestinal problems as animals.
Giardia is diagnosed by looking for cysts in a fecal sample. Treatment is usually successful with a single antibiotic. Occasionally, a combination of medications is needed to resolve the infection.
Like giardia, coccidia is also a protozoal organism. It typically infects young animals before the immune system is strong enough to prevent infection. It attacks the gastrointestinal system and causes a watery, yellow diarrhea.
People are not susceptible to coccidia. An effective antibiotic is available to treat coccidia.
The good news is that treatment of internal parasites is safe and effective.
Every kitten/puppy should be dewormed during their first visit to the veterinarian.
Dogs should be on monthly heartworm prevention that has the added benefit of treating for roundworms as well.
Cats should be dewormed regularly based on their lifestyle.
Animals in areas endemic to fleas and ticks also should be on regular flea and tick preventives to address the spread of tapeworms from fleas.
Talk with your veterinarian about the best approach for keeping your pets and family healthy.