Spring is parasite season in the pet and veterinary world. This includes external parasites, like fleas and ticks, and internal parasites, like heartworm and intestinal parasites (more often referred to as “worms”). There are often misconceptions that pet owners have or that get passed around regarding worms that can affect the health of your pet. Here are some of the more common ones, and the realities that surround them.
- Myth: My cat or dog can’t have worms because they are just a puppy/kitten.
Reality: Most worms are picked up from the environment, but puppies/kittens can get worms from their mom even before birth or by feeding on mother’s milk. Puppies and kittens also have a reduced immune system, and their bodies can’t fight off these worms like adult animals can. This is why it is important that we test their feces for worms at their first vaccine appointment!
- Myth: My cat/dog doesn’t go outdoors much, so they can’t pick up worms.
Reality: All that needs to happen for a pet to pick up worms is to come in contact with infected feces. This can be a tiny trace of poop on the grass from a neighbourhood dog or cat, or even some wild animals. They can step in it, or sniff with their nose, and then lick their nose or paws, and the microscopic eggs are now in their gut, where they can infect the pet. All dogs go outdoors for walks, and a lot of cats do as well. Even if our pets aren’t going on long hikes/trails, they can still pick up worms since most dogs/cats are found in populated areas, therefore, the supply of infected feces is abundant in our neighbourhoods.
- Myth: I monitor by dog/cats bowel movements, they are regular and not having diarrhea, so they cannot have worms.
Reality: Almost all dogs/cats will have some level of worms; mostly they shed eggs which are microscopic and too small for us to see. A small number of worms in the gut of a healthy dog or cat can show no external symptoms, but they are still pooping out eggs and infecting the surrounding environment. If they are vomiting or having diarrhea due to worms, that means that there is a very high amount of worms and therefore we are seeing symptoms in these particular patients. This is why we recommend yearly fecal screenings for worms, even in patients that are asymptomatic.
- Myth: If I don’t see worms, I don’t need to worry about it
Reality: Most dogs with worms will not poop out the adults, just the eggs and/or larval forms, which we often don’t even notice. Even if we don’t see worms, the most common types (roundworms, hooks worms) can infect humans as well, especially, those that are young, old or immune compromised. They can cause people to contract the worms in the gut, which can also cause diseases like cutaneous (worms in the skin), visceral (worms in the abdomen or chest) and ocular (worms in the eye) larval migrans. This is why it is especially important to test the pets, prevent parasites, and clean the environment in homes with children, the elderly, or the immune compromised.
What can I do to check and treat/protect my four-legged as well as two-legged family members?
- One of the most important tools is to have a fecal exam for your dog/cat as a part of their annual exam. It is done once a year unless there are worms seen at any other time of the year, which indicates that we need more targeted or more intensive treatment.
- Make sure children, elderly, and immune-compromised individuals pay special attention to hygiene after interacting with pets and removing bowel movements from the environment as early as possible.
- If you ever observe any worms or other questionable things in bowel movements, place it safely in a plastic bag and bring to your Veterinarian for identification and treatment accordingly. Worms come in all sizes and shapes. They can be as small as a grain of rice to more than 300 cm long depending on location and type of worm.
- Contact your Veterinarian for more details to get more clarification because it doesn’t just affect your cat/dog’s health; it may affect the whole family.
- Have a detailed discussion with your Veterinarian about your dog/cat’s lifestyle to determine the level of risk of exposure to worms as well as recommended parasite prevention plan. There are a lot of different and easy types of preventative medications, from flavoured tablets to topical treatments that just get applied to their skin once monthly.
Written by Dr. Badar Farooq