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Pet Corner: Pets and Intestinal Parasites


L. Ailes, DVM

Parasites can be a problem in our pets and most carry zoonotic potential, meaning they can be transmitted to humans. Pets who live in a drier climate have a lower risk of intestinal parasites than in wetter parts of the country.  However, parasites can infect pets no matter what type of climate our animals are living in. Therefore it is worthwhile to discuss parasites and how we can reduce the risk of a parasitic infection in dogs and cats.

The most common intestinal parasite of puppies and kittens is roundworms. Roundworms have a complex lifestyle and can be transmitted to puppies or kittens through the uterus during pregnancy or while nursing from the mother. Roundworms can also be picked up by eating feces of another animal.  Roundworm infestation can cause diarrhea and vomiting. Occasionally, the worms themselves will be seen, which are long and white, much like spaghetti and up to 7 inches long. Puppies and kittens infested with roundworms may have a potbellied appearance or look unhealthy in general. Some may develop more severe problems such as pneumonia from migrating larvae.

Species of roundworms that typically affect cats and dogs can also be contracted by humans.  These infections are caused by migrating larvae that can infect the eyes or brain. Often these infections are in seen in children who have been playing in dirt or sand that is contaminated by dog or cat feces.  Immunosuppressed adults are also at risk and should take great care to wash their hands after gardening, etc.

Another common parasite that affects cats and dogs is the hookworm. These worms are less common; however, their effects on cats and dogs can be much more severe.  These worms can be transmitted by ingestion, like roundworms, through the placenta, and they can also penetrate through the skin and migrate to the intestinal tract.  Hookworms attach to the intestinal wall using their six hook-like teeth to ingest blood. Puppies require a lot of blood to fuel their growth; a moderately heavy hookworm infestation can cause a puppy to bleed to death.

As with roundworms, hookworms may be contracted by humans. Also like roundworms, hookworms affect different systems in humans than they would in a dog or cat. Humans typically contract roundworms by walking barefoot in soil that is contaminated with dog or cat feces. The worms penetrate the bottom of the foot and leave itchy tracks on the skin as they migrate along beneath it. The condition is treatable but very irritating and in rare cases may spread to the lungs or small intestine.

Tapeworms infest both dogs and cats. Tapeworms have indirect lifestyles. This means our pets are not infected by consuming tapeworm eggs; rather they contract the parasite from eating an infected flea or after consuming an infected mouse, rabbit, or squirrel. Tapeworms live in the pet"s intestinal tract, attaching to the wall by hooks on their heads. After reaching six or more inches, the worm begins to shed egg sacs, which pass through the intestinal tract and are often seen stuck in the hair around the pet"s anus. Tapeworms absorb their nutrition by digesting food as it passes by in the intestines, thus decreasing the amount of nutrients available for digestion by the infected pet. Human infection by tapeworms is rare but possible if an individual were to consume an infected flea or consume the eggs of certain species of tapeworm. The effect of this type of infestation in humans is the same as in a dog or cat.

Coccidia and giardia are single celled, microscopic parasites that are detected on routine fecal tests. Infection with these parasites can cause severe diarrhea that may be life threatening, especially in young puppies and kittens. It is also common for pets to have moderately heavy loads of one or the other of these parasites and show no symptoms at all. Pets contract these organisms when they consume soil or water that has been contaminated with feces. Because giardia can also cause severe diarrhea in humans, it is important to wash your hands thoroughly after handling your pets, even if they do not show any symptoms of infection. It is also necessary to treat this infection in dogs and cats even if they are asymptomatic.
Due to the effects parasitic infections have on our pets and the danger they pose to their human families, it is important that each pet be taken to their veterinarian to have a physical and fecal exam yearly.

As you can easily imagine, any of these parasites put extra stress on an animal. There are several things you can do to help your pet through this time. Number one is to feed a high-quality dog food. Supplementing with Natural Whole Food Concentrate for Dogs, Dog Vites or Cat Vites also is important. Building the immune system with Pet Immune Care and Pet Intestinal Care can provide another way to improve resistance to parasites and ensure our pets stay healthy and strong.

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