Intestinal parasites are organisms that live in an animal’s intestinal tract, which comprises the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine, and feed off the animal without any benefit to the host. Most parasites in dogs and cats are types of worms or protozoa that can cause signs such as diarrhea, vomiting, inappetence, or lethargy. Many are easily treatable and may be preventable. Here are five facts you should know about intestinal parasites.
Roundworms are the most common parasite in dogs and cats
The roundworm, or ascarid, is commonly found on routine fecal tests, most often in young puppies or kittens, because roundworm larvae are easily transmitted in utero or via nursing from the mother. These worms live freely in the intestines and can produce excess gas, giving young puppies and kittens a bloated appearance. Adult animals with roundworm infections usually have only mild evidence of disease, but young animals are more susceptible and need prompt treatment. For this reason, puppies and kittens should be routinely dewormed with a broad-spectrum dewormer, usually with their vaccine boosters.
Some pets with parasite infection have no symptoms
Younger animals suffering from parasitic infections often show more severe signs than their adult counterparts, such as vomiting, diarrhea, inappetence, gas, weight loss, or poor appearance, and some may die without treatment. While adult animals can display similar signs, many healthy, mature dogs and cats may not show a single sign, despite a fecal test that is positive for parasitic eggs. This is due to adult pets’ more advanced immune systems and their better ability to fight infections, and is the reason routine fecal testing is encouraged.
Tapeworms in pets are usually caused by fleas
Tapeworms are flat, segmented worms that can grow to four to six inches in length in your pet’s intestinal tract. These worms require an intermediate host to complete their life cycle, which, in most dogs and cats, is the flea. Pets must ingest a flea infected with tapeworms to become infected, so if your pet has fleas, you should look for tapeworms, and vice versa. Routine, broad-spectrum flea prevention can help eliminate the chances of tapeworms being a problem in your pet. Over-the-counter products typically won’t treat an infection because tapeworms require a specific, prescription dewormer.
Pets can contract certain parasites from contaminated water
Most intestinal worms, such as roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms, are spread via the fecal-oral route or from mother to baby. However, certain parasitic protozoa, such as Giardia, can be contracted by drinking contaminated water. Giardia is a one-celled protozoan organism—not a worm, bacteria, or a virus—that is known to cause significant, watery, foul-smelling diarrhea, although some infected dogs will be asymptomatic. Giardia can be difficult to examine on routine fecal testing and is often missed, so your veterinarian may recommend testing for the Giardia antigen if this disease is suspected. Fortunately, the disease is relatively easy to treat, although repeat therapies may be required.
Many parasites can spread from pets to humans
Pet owners do not commonly contract their pet’s parasites, but they can greatly minimize their chances of infection by practicing safe, sanitary excrement cleanup. Parasitic worms, such as the tapeworm, roundworm, and hookworm, are considered zoonotic, along with Giardia and other parasites, such as toxoplasma. Most infections occur only when the parasite eggs are ingested, meaning that owners would need to somehow eat their pet’s feces. You can eliminate this risk by promptly picking up and disposing of your pet’s excrement. If your pet has an accident in the house, ensure you wash her bedding in hot water and clean affected surfaces with chlorine bleach.
Fortunately, intestinal parasites are usually preventable with routine preventive medications, many of which also address other ectoparasites, such as fleas, ticks, and mites. Contact us to discuss which product may be best to keep your pet free from parasites and safe from infection.