Parasites. The very word makes the stomach turn in disgust. While humans in the developed world, with its modern hygienic practices, have less to fear from these nasty creatures, our furry friends are still plagued with them.
What is a parasite? It’s an organism that lives off of a larger animal, stealing nutrients at the host’s expense.
Unfortunately, dogs have many parasites – from flukes to fleas. However, one of the most common invaders to ruin your dog’s day isn’t always seen by the naked eye.
Did you know that if your pup is losing weight, has a dull coat or is tired all the time, they could be plagued with parasitic worms?
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The Three Worm Types
There are three main types of worm that infect dogs:
- Roundworms: Also known as Nematodes, roundworms are microscopic, narrow worms that taper at the ends. There are several different types of roundworms like stomach worms, hookworms or whipworms. These worms can also be found in the heart and lungs.
- Tapeworms: This category of worms, also called Cestodes, have a head and body that is made up of several segments.
- Flatworms: Worms is this category are also labeled Trematodes or Flukes. They live up to their name with their flat shape. They often are found in the dog’s liver, lungs or intestines.
The Top Five Offenders
Let’s explore the top five species of worms that infect dogs. It’s more likely that you will encounter these parasites over other types of infections.
Roundworms – Causes and Symptoms
Dogs pick up roundworms when they eat dirt or feces containing the roundworm eggs.
Surprisingly, most puppies are actually born with roundworm, as the mothers can have dormant larvae in their tissue that migrates to the puppies at the end of the pregnancy. They can also transfer the larva through the mother’s milk.
While a light infection of these nasty creatures can cause a dull coat, dry skin and potbelly, roundworm infections can become more dangerous when they cause liver damage or intestinal blockage.
While the larvae are microscopic, round worms can grow up to five inches in length. You can sometimes see roundworms in your dog’s stool or vomit. They look like spaghetti.
Female roundworms can produce up to 200,000 eggs in just one day. However, these eggs can exist dormant in the soil for years and become active when a dog ingests them.
The larvae can also encyst in the body tissue of their host to wait for pregnancy.
Since worming the dog only kills the parasites in the intestinal tract, it makes this worm very difficult to get rid of once the infection has set in. Your dog may need multiple treatments to get rid of them completely.
Humans can also pick up roundworm from the eggs in canine feces. Because of this risk, be very careful when picking up after your pet.
Hookworms – Causes and Symptoms
About one in five dogs are infected with hookworms, another type of roundworm.
They get their name from the hook-like teeth they utilize to attach to your pup’s intestinal track lining and suck their blood like a tick.
Hookworms can be especially dangerous for puppies. Just like roundworm, hookworms can be transferred through the mother’s milk.
Like most worms, they are transmitted through contact with feces; as well as directly on the skin when dogs walk through wet grass or sand where the larvae are active.
This is why dogs aren’t allowed on most beaches, as humans can also pick up this nasty parasite.
Infection symptoms range from diarrhea and weakness to anemia in more severe cases. Your pup may develop a poor appetite or you many notice the gums, ears or lips become pale.
If the worms travel to your dog’s lungs, they may develop a cough. They may also get tarry stool or constipation if they move to the intestines.
It’s important to get hookworms treated immediately if you suspect them, as they can be very dangerous for your dog.
Whipworms – Causes and Symptoms
Again, dining on dirt is what gives your dog these awful invaders. Whipworm eggs are found in the soil passed from the feces of another infected animal.
A dog can also get whipworms simply by licking the dirt on their paws, food or water dishes. These worms live mainly in the dog’s cecum, or the first section of the large intestine.
The symptoms are similar to hookworm infections. Dogs with whipworms can experience anemia, lethargy, weight loss and dehydration.
Sometimes, you can tell by the stool if they have an infection if you notice a covering of mucus around the last part of the bowel movement.
This worm is sometimes difficult to diagnose, as they shed eggs intermittently. Since vets confirm any infection of worms by looking for the eggs in a stool sample, if they don’t catch the stool on the right timeframe, they may get a false negative.
Thankfully, this worm doesn’t infect humans.
Tapeworms – Causes and Symptoms
These worms are the stuff of nightmares because of how large they can grow in your poor dog’s intestines. Adult tapeworms can reach up to 8 inches long!
While they may look scary, they don’t cause a lot of harm except in the most severe cases. When tapeworms take over the dog’s digestive track, they can cause weight loss, abdominal pain, nervousness, vomiting and intense itching around the anus.
Like all the other worms, the eggs are transmitted through ingestion of infected soil, or from eating fleas during their self-grooming regiment. Dogs can even get them from eating rodents.
In fact, you may find a segment of a tapeworm left behind on a couch or chair left after your dog leaves the area. These worms allow body segments to break off because they contain their eggs.
If you see what looks like small grains of rice in your dog’s stool, they are probably infected with tapeworm.
Heartworms – Causes and Symptoms
The most dangerous type of worm your furry friend can encounter is heartworm.
This parasite is transmitted through mosquito bites. When the insect bites an infected dog, they then take some of the larvae in the blood and infect the next dog.
If the infection is left untreated, these worms can seriously damage a dog’s heart and lungs, eventually killing them.
Symptoms of heartworms include coughing, lethargy and lack of strength. They can also cause high blood pressure, heart obstructions and even heart failure.
Preventing Parasitic Worms in Dogs
Now that we’ve examined the common worms that infect dogs in more detail, you’re probably hoping never to encounter them in your own dog.
So, how do you make sure the only experience you have with these puppy plagues is in this article?
The first step to ensuring your dog stays free of worms is to have them checked by a vet to make sure they aren’t carrying these stowaways in their body.
Since the evidence of worms isn’t always apparent, it’s best to have your vet check your dog’s stool at least once a year.
Keep It Clean
You’ve probably noticed a theme of how dogs were infected with these parasites.
The poop is the problem! Therefore, you need to scoop poop from the yard daily if you have multiple dogs or allow other dogs to come into your yard.
If you have outdoor runs, create a watertight surface such as cement. Worms don’t do very well on this surface and prefer dirt.
Keep your lawn cut short and water only when necessary to make the area less inviting for other preferred worm hosts to venture onto your property.
Fleas, lice and rodents all can carry tapeworm and give it to your dog. If you make sure they don’t feel welcome, you also can eliminate the risks they bring.
If you have a rodent problem, get rid of the mice or rats so they don’t pass their worms to your pup.
Wash your dog’s bedding weekly to prevent fleas, which can transfer worms to your dog. You don’t want this pest breeding and building up in your home.
Eliminate stagnant water where mosquitos can breed. Remember, it just takes one bite from the wrong mosquito to infect your puppy with heartworms.
Watch the Raw Meat
While I understand that feeding your dog raw meat is accepted in many circles, it does carry some risk. The main concern is that raw meat can carry parasites, including worms. Cooked meat should fix this issue.
This also goes for people who let their dogs roam, hunt and eat prey. Again, many prey animals can pass their worms to your dog.
Keep Your Dog Away From Feces
As we’ve now learned, the main way worms travel to a new host is through feces.
Dogs can get worms from other dog’s stool, as well as from cats and other wildlife. Therefore, don’t let your dog sniff other animal’s droppings or they may pick up more than just the scent.
Of course, sometimes your best preventive efforts still won’t be enough. If your dog becomes infected with worms, your vet will be able to prescribe a deworming medication to eradicate the infection.
There isn’t one dewormer that will eradicate all worms, which is why it is so important for your vet to determine the type of worms you are battling.
Vets also give monthly medications to prevent the parasites from even settling in. These preventives are especially important to stop heartworms, since just a passing mosquito can infect your pet.
While there are many dangers your dog will face, some of the most concerning threats can come from the smallest foes. Even though you can’t see parasitic worms, they are still a big danger to your pet.
However, with routine check-ups and preventative maintenance, your furry friend can avoid all of the parasitic pitfalls and lead a very healthy and happy life free of nasty invaders.
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Before starting her full-time writing business, Sarah worked with a top pet food company as a consultant to veterinarians conducting weekly classes on canine and feline nutrition for the doctors and staff.
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