Author: Dr. C. Noureddine, DVM, MS, MS
Intestinal parasites are an infection risk for your pet. Thankfully, as pet owners, we have lots of ways to help protect and minimize the risk to our pets. In fact, there are many products available to help keep your pet on a routine deworming schedule. Even better, these products are often paired with heartworm preventive products.
So why would we want to routinely deworm pets?
Some people might think we should just wait and deworm if a parasitic infection like roundworms or hookworms is diagnosed in our pets. However, it’s actually a great idea to deworm our pets prophylactically (for some of the more common parasites) because you won’t always know if your pet has become infected…and the risk of intestinal parasite exposure for pets is all around! Furthermore, certain intestinal parasites (such as roundworms and hookworms) carry zoonotic risk. This means the intestinal parasite can be transmitted between people and animals.
Are you familiar with how pets can come into contact with intestinal parasites?
- Soil: Parasite eggs can be found in the soil. The typical route of infection for many intestinal parasites is through ingestion of contaminated material containing the infective stage of the parasite. Indoor pets can be exposed to parasites if potting soil is contaminated.
Nursing: Puppies and kittens can acquire certain parasites through transmammary transmission.
- Ingestion of another organism: Eating a host vertebrate animal containing the parasite is also an important method of transmission. Some insects (e.g., flies, cockroaches) can even transmit certain parasites.
- Larval migration through skin: For hookworms, larvae can also migrate through intact skin as a route of infection.
How do we diagnose intestinal parasites in pets?
- Symptoms: Symptoms of intestinal parasites can include things such as anorexia, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stools, or anemia, to name a few. Tapeworm segments can cause hind end itching, chewing, and scooting. Importantly, intestinal parasites do not always cause clinical symptoms in your pet.
- Visualization of the parasite: Sometimes worms or parasite segments can be seen passing in the feces.
- Fecal Testing: Since intestinal parasites may not cause clinical signs, routine intestinal parasite screening (fecal testing) is necessary to help identify asymptomatic pets.
How is fecal testing performed?
- First, we need owners to bring a fresh fecal sample to the clinic. We can also collect the sample at the clinic, but your pet will appreciate it if you can bring a sample!
- Fecal testing is performed by using special fecal solutions and then analyzing the sample under a microscope to look for evidence of parasites.
- We can perform fecal testing in-house, especially for newly adopted pets and animals showing clinical signs. For non-urgent testing, we typically send the fecal sample to an outside laboratory that has additional testing capabilities. The outside laboratory can perform a more sensitive level of fecal analysis utilizing a process called fecal centrifugation. The lab will also perform antigen testing on the sample for some of the more common intestinal parasites.
How can I protect my pet and the environment that he or she frequents?
- Routine deworming: The Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) recommends year-round broad-spectrum intestinal parasite control. As mentioned above, many heartworm prevention products also deworm for some of the more common intestinal parasites. For example, if you give your dog Sentinel each month, in addition to heartworm prevention and keeping fleas from laying viable eggs, you are also deworming for roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms. Similarly, if you apply Revolution to your cat each month, in additional to heartworm, flea, and ear mite protection, you are also providing protection against roundworms and hookworms. Visit CAPC’s Pets and Parasites website for more great information.
- Dispose of fecal waste promptly: Always remove fecal waste as soon as possible, and also be sure to wash your hands. Many parasite eggs are actually not infectious as soon as they pass from the stool into the environment and need a period of time to develop into an infectious stage. Prompt removal of fecal material from the yard or litter box will remove the chances of environmental contamination with infective-stage parasites.
What about the zoonotic disease risk of intestinal parasites?
- Zoonotic diseases are diseases that can be spread between animals and humans. Children, the elderly, and immunocompromised individuals can be at a higher risk for the transmission of zoonotic diseases.
- Many intestinal parasites have zoonotic potential. In general, prompt removal and disposal of feces, washing hands, and keeping outdoor areas (sandboxes, play areas, gardens) free from fecal material are good practices to follow.
- If your pet is diagnosed with a disease that has the potential to be transmitted to humans, please consult your doctor for medical advice.