Almost every dog and cat will, at some time in their lives, become infected with parasites. Parasite control is extremely important. They can affect your pet in a number of ways, from simple irritation to life-threatening conditions. And some parasites can even infect and transmit diseases to your family.
Your veterinarian can help prevent, accurately diagnose and safely treat parasites as well as other health problems that affect your dog or cat, but also your family. Controlling parasites year-round is important to the health of both you and your pet, so regular visits are important.
There are both internal and external parasites. What are they and how do you spot them? And what do you do about them?
You’re probably aware of at least two of these external parasites, and all are easy to spot.
- Fleas. Fleas are the most common external parasite for both cats and dogs. They aren’t only an irritation to your pet – they are estimated to be responsible for more than 50% of all the pet skin problems reported to vets, because fleas can cause Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD). Fleas also cause tapeworm in both cats and dogs (more about that later) and Bartonella, the bacteria that causes “cat scratch fever” in humans. Bartonella infection in humans is especially dangerous for those with compromised immune systems.
Fleas can be picked up by your pet almost anywhere, even from your clothes and shoes, if you’ve been walking in an infested area.
- Ticks. Ticks attach themselves to both humans and animals by inserting mouth parts into skin and then feeding on their blood. They can transmit diseases such as Lyme and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, both of which can result in lameness in your pet.
- Ticks are responsible for a number of diseases in humans, but the best known is Lyme Disease. The Centers for Disease Control says that in 2018, 33,666 confirmed and probable cases were reported. And, the areas where the disease is found is expanding.
- Ear Mites. These tiny mites are seen as “black gunk” in the ears of your dog or cat. They live on the surface of the ear canal. Unlike fleas and ticks, they are solely transmitted by social interaction with other animals. They are easily spread, so if you have one pet with ear mites, it’s likely all will get them. People will not get ear mites from pets.
Veterinarians are always on the lookout for parasites in your pet’s gastrointestinal tract. This is why you’re asked to bring in a “poop sample.” While some internal parasites are found through a blood test, others are present in your dog or cat’s feces. And some of them can be passed along to humans.
- Heartworm. This is a potentially fatal disease. Just the word can strike fear into the heart of dog owners, but cats can get heartworm, too. It’s transmitted by mosquitoes, and the disease itself is caused by foot-long worms that live in the heart, lungs and associated blood vessels of afflicted pets, causing severe lung disease, heart failure and damage to other organs in the body.
In the early stages of the disease, many dogs show few symptoms or no symptoms, but the longer the infection persists, the more likely symptoms will develop. Signs of heartworm disease may include: A mild persistent cough, not wanting to exercise, fatigue after moderate activity, decreased appetite, and weight loss.
Your dog should be tested for heartworm annually, and all puppies should be started on a heartworm preventative as soon as advised by your vet. The diagnosis is confirmed through a blood test, although sometimes an ultrasound of the heart or x-ray of the chest is needed.
- Roundworm. Many dogs and cats are born with the larvae already in their system because it was passed by their infected mother. It can also be transferred through the mother’s milk or contact with infected feces.
You may find roundworms in your dog or cat’s vomit or stool, and your pet may become pot-bellied or have diarrhea.
Unfortunately, roundworms can be passed to you and your family through skin contact with infected stool or soil where dogs frequently go to the bathroom. It can migrate beyond the skin and cause issues to the liver, eyes, and central nervous system if left untreated.
Dogs and cats should be treated at two, four, six, and eight weeks of age.
- Hookworm. These are found in dogs more often than cats. They attach to the intestinal wall and feed on blood. And this is another parasite that can be passed along to your family. This parasite is detected by providing your vet with a small stool sample.
Hookworm eggs are excreted into the digestive tract and pass through the feces, and they then infect the soil. The larvae thrive in the soil and can infect your pet through ingesting the dirt or daily cleaning (licking).
Hookworms cause internal blood loss, which can be fatal for a young puppy unless they have transfusions. Older dogs may experience diarrhea and weight loss. Puppies should be treated at two, four, six, and eight weeks with deworming medication.
Hookworms in cats manifests differently. Early symptoms: Lesions on the bottoms of the feet and in between the toes, where the hookworm has entered the skin, coughing if the worms are in the lungs, dark and tarry stool, diarrhea, and constipation. Your cat will have an unhealthy appearance and a poor appetite, and the linings of the nostrils, lips, and ears will be pale. Complications can come suddenly, and may result in death if your cat is not immediately treated. If you have a kitten, talk with your vet about how to best treat it.
Hookworms can infect humans by penetrating the skin, usually from contact with infected soil (walking barefoot where dogs may deposit feces). This usually results in an itching sensation and even visible tracks from the hookworms. While it’s very uncomfortable, it’s completely treatable.
- Whipworm. Whipworms will live in the area where the small and large intestine meet. They are contracted by your pet swallowing eggs in contaminated soil or other areas containing fecal matter. Your cat or dog may not show any sign of infection, but more serious infections may result in bloody diarrhea. Left untreated, whipworm infection causes serious disease and even death. Whipworms are diagnosed from a stool sample. And although uncomfortable, it’s completely treatable.
- Tapeworm. Your dog or cat gets tapeworm from swallowing fleas infested with tapeworm eggs. The tapeworm then sheds part of its tail and it may be visible in feces, or the fur under the tail. Tapeworm looks like grains of rice. Symptoms include general anal itchiness, scooting, weight loss without change in appetite, or increased appetite without weight gain. Tapeworms are diagnosed from a stool sample.
While it’s uncommon, humans can get tapeworms from their pets. Most of the worms settle in a host's intestines and cause gastrointestinal problems. Transmission occurs when a person handles soil or sand that contains aged, contaminated feces, and there's hand-to-mouth contact.
- Giardia. Giardia is not a worm, but a single-celled parasite that lives in the intestine. It is usually contracted by swallowing infected water or ingesting anything contaminated by feces. Giardiasis, the disease caused by giardia, manifests as vomiting and diarrhea and can be confirmed by your veterinarian by testing a stool sample.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the risk of humans acquiring giardia from dogs or cats is small. The exact type of Giardia that infects humans is usually not the same type that infects dogs and cats.
What Should I Do to Prevent Parasite Infection?
Responsible parasite control can reduce the risks associated with transmission of parasitic diseases from pets to people.
- Practice good personal hygiene. This means washing your hands after touching your pet or their feces.
- Use a preventative flea and tick treatment all year long.
- Only feed pets cooked or prepared food rather than raw meat.
- Minimize exposure to areas where pets usually defecate.
- Clean up pet feces regularly.
- Visit your veterinarian for annual testing and physical examination.
- Ask your veterinarian about parasite infection risks and effective preventative control measures.
By following a few simple guidelines and making regular vet visits, owners can protect their pets and their family.
If you are unsure of when your pet’s last vet visit was, don’t have a current vaccination record, or have questions about your pet’s health, don’t hesitate to contact us at Academy Animal Hospital. We’re committed to keeping Greenwood area pets healthy and happy.