Why is Parasite Prevention So Important?
The Importance of Your Pet’s Yearly Fecal Exam
We recommend that every pet have a fecal checked for intestinal parasites yearly. One major reason for this is that intestinal parasites can harm your pets by decreasing their ability to absorb nutrients, causing vomiting or diarrhea, or even damaging their intestines. The other important reason to check your pets for parasites is that many of these infections are zoonotic, which means that they can spread to people. Young children are often especially at risk of developing parasitic infections, as their hygiene can be less than ideal.
What are the most common parasites found in fecal samples of dogs and cats?
Roundworms are one of the most common worms seen in fecal exams of young puppies and kittens. This is because the worms are spread from the mother to the babies across the placenta. We assume that every puppy and kitten is positive for roundworms, which is why we put every patient on a safe dewormer to give consistently until they are six months of age.
If untreated, roundworms can cause young animals to have a “pot belly” appearance and to grow more slowly than they should. Animals will sometimes vomit up worms or have worms in their stool. The immature form of the worm also travels through the lungs, so some animals will cough or show respiratory distress.
Roundworms are a very important zoonotic disease, often seen in children. Disease occurs when children eat an egg, released in the stool of an affected animal, from the environment. These eggs survive in soil for many years, and can often be found at parks or playgrounds. After the child eats the egg, the larvae are born and migrate throughout the child’s body. This can cause disease in any number of organs: liver, lung, brain, or eye. Because the eggs are so difficult to kill once they are in the environment, it is very important that we prevent our pets from spreading them.
Dogs and cats have many different ways to become infected by hookworms. The eggs can be eaten from the environment or from consuming another animal. Hookworm larvae can also burrow into an animal’s skin and enter the body that way. Similar to roundworms, hookworms are also spread from mother to baby. However, instead of crossing the placenta, hookworm larvae are passed to the baby through the milk. Again, this makes hookworms very common in young animals. This is another reason why we always deworm puppies and kittens.
Hookworms are nasty parasites that slash at the intestines and drink the blood of the animal. They inject anti-coagulants into their wounds to create small bleeding ulcers that they feed from. This can cause animals to become anemic from lack of red blood cells. Affected animals are often pale, thin and sick in appearance. Young puppies and kittens can even die from hookworm infections. Respiratory disease is also possible, again secondary to the larvae traveling through the animal’s lungs.
Similar to how they infect dogs and cats, hookworm larvae can enter the skin of humans. However, they become lost inside the human skin and cannot find their way to the GI tract. Instead, they migrate around the skin, causing a red itchy lesion. This is one of the most common skin infections seen in tourists to tropical locations. Another common place for infection is in children’s sandboxes, which should always be covered when not in use.
Whipworms are much more commonly seen in dogs than cats. Dogs become infected when they eat whipworm eggs from the environment. Whipworms also can damage the intestines and cause diarrhea. The most difficult part of treating whipworm infections is that their eggs are incredibly hardy and can live for years in the environment. For this reason, dogs should be on a monthly heartworm prevention that is labelled to protect against whipworms (i.e Sentinel, Trifexis, or Interceptor).
Zoonotic risk: None proven
Coccidia are single-celled protozoan parasites that commonly infect dogs and cats, especially puppies and kittens. They cause diarrhea, dehydration, vomiting, lack of growth, and possibly death. Coccidia can be picked up by eating eggs from the environment or from hunting and eating other infected animals. Coccidia is also very hardy in the environment and is resistant to most disinfectants, so it can be difficult to get rid of the eggs once they are released from the animal in the stool. Treatment for coccidia is a medication called Albon, which is different from the treatment for most other intestinal parasites.
Zoonotic risk: None
Giardia is another protozoa that can cause diarrhea in dogs and cats. Cysts are picked up from the environment, often from a contaminated water source, or from the animal grooming itself. Treatment for giardia often involves a combination of medications, as well as bathing to remove cysts from the animal’s coat. We will often treat asymptomatic animals from the same household, since the parasite is so contagious and can be difficult to control.
Very low. Humans can develop giardia infections as well, but it has not been demonstrated to travel between dogs/cats and humans. It is suspected that humans can only spread giardia to other humans, and dogs and cats have their own species as well.
Tapeworms can be difficult to diagnose from a fecal sample, as their eggs are often too heavy to show up in a fecal float test. However, they are often recognizable as “small grains of rice” in the animal’s feces. Dogs and cats catch tapeworms from either predation of other animals or eating fleas (often when grooming them off of their coats). Fortunately, severe disease from tapeworms is uncommon and treatment is simple. Regular flea prevention and not allowing pets to hunt will keep them from developing tapeworm infestations.
Although rare, tapeworms, especially Echinococcus species, can cause a significant risk for humans who ingest their eggs. In this scenario, people may become the intermediate host of the parasite, and develop large tapeworm cysts somewhere in their body. This can require drainage, surgical removal, or long-term treatment with anti-parasitic medication.
How can we prevent intestinal parasites?
The best way to prevent intestinal parasites is to keep your pet on a monthly heartworm preventative that also kills GI worms. Each of these preventatives vary in their spectrum, so ask your veterinarian which one may be appropriate for your pet. Flea prevention is also very important, both to prevent flea infestations and tapeworm infections.Yearly fecal exams allow us to pick up on parasites that may not be addressed by monthly preventatives, such as coccidia, giardia or tapeworms.
Feel free to ask your veterinarian if you have more questions about these intestinal parasites. Also, enjoy 10% off fecal testing and heartworm testing for the month of April, as well as discounts and bargains on flea/tick and heartworm/gutworm preventatives! Click here to learn more about our BOGO deals on heartworm and gutworm prevention.