Intestinal parasites are a common problem affecting pets, and some can cause significant health issues. Our American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)-accredited team at Gentle Touch Animal Hospital reviews the internal parasites that affect pets, and explain how you can prevent your pet from being targeted.
Worm-like parasites affecting pets
Intestinal parasites that have a worm-like appearance can affect pets, including:
- Roundworms — Roundworms are the most common intestinal parasite to affect cats and dogs. Pets are infected by roundworms when they ingest eggs or animal meat with larvae in the tissues. Puppies and kittens can also be infected through their mother’s milk. The parasite attaches to the intestinal walls, and survives by absorbing nutrients ingested by the host. Adults infected by roundworms typically do not exhibit signs, but the spaghetti-like worms may be found in your pet’s feces. In puppies and kittens, roundworm infections can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation, and in severe cases, life-threatening anemia.
- Tapeworms — Pets are most commonly infected by tapeworms by ingesting infected fleas while grooming. The tapeworm embeds in the intestinal lining, and absorbs nutrients from their host. The adult worms can reach up to 11 inches in length. These parasites have a small head connected to egg-filled segments, and as the segments furthest from the head mature, they break off, and are passed in the pet’s feces, appearing as rice-like pieces. Some affected pets don’t exhibit signs, but signs can include weight loss, decreased appetite, unkempt appearance, lethargy, and diarrhea. The segments can irritate the pet’s anus, causing them to scoot their hind end across the floor as they attempt to alleviate the issue.
- Hookworms — Pets are usually infected by hookworms when their larvae are ingested, or penetrate the pet’s skin. These thread-like worms attach to the intestinal wall and feed on the host’s blood. Pets housed in overcrowded or unsanitary conditions are at higher risk for developing a hookworm infection. Mild cases result in diarrhea and weight loss, and severe cases cause anemia. The pet’s feces may appear black and tarry.
- Whipworms — Pets are infected by whipworms when they ingest the eggs, which are extremely resistant to drying and heat, and can survive in the environment for up to five years. The larvae develop in the small intestine, and then pass to the large intestine where they attach, causing severe inflammation. Signs include diarrhea and weight loss.
Protozoan parasites that affect pets
Single-celled, microscopic parasites can also affect your pet’s gastrointestinal tract. These include:
- Coccidia — Pets usually become infected by coccidia when they ingest a cyst (i.e., a thick-walled, egg-like stage). Coccidia usually don’t cause significant issues for adult pets, but the organism can destroy the intestinal lining in geriatric pets, puppies, and kittens, causing mucoid diarrhea, vomiting, and decreased appetite.
- Giardia — Pets usually become infected by Giardia by ingesting a cyst, or drinking contaminated water. Giardia attach to the intestinal wall, and cause damage that usually results in acute, foul-smelling diarrhea. Infected pets typically have excess mucus in their feces, and the infection can lead to chronic, intermittent diarrhea and weight loss.
Diagnosing intestinal parasites in pets
Roundworms and tapeworms are usually passed in an affected pet’s feces, and you will see the parasites when your pet eliminates. Other intestinal parasites can be seen by microscopically examining your pet’s fecal material. Pets should have regular fecal tests during routine wellness visits, to ensure they do not have a parasitic infection. Puppies and kittens should have fecal tests at least twice during their first year, and adult pets should have a fecal test performed at least once per year. Tapeworms are passed intermittently, and are not often diagnosed on routine fecal examinations. If you see a tapeworm segment in your pet’s feces, notify our team at Gentle Touch Animal Hospital.
Treating intestinal parasites in pets
Intestinal parasites are treated with an appropriate deworming medication that should be prescribed by an experienced veterinary professional. Our veterinary team will be glad to determine the best deworming program for your pet.
Preventing intestinal parasites in pets
Preventing intestinal parasites is the best way to protect your pet. Safeguarding your pet should include:
- Sanitation — Frequently scoop all fecal matter from your pet’s environment.
- Other pets — Do not let your pet contact other pets’ fecal material.
- Wildlife — Do not let your pet contact a wild animal’s fecal material, and do not let them eat wild animals.
- Puppies and kittens — Puppies and kittens should receive an appropriate deworming medication at 2, 4, 6, and 8 weeks of age.
- Fecal exams — All pets should have regular fecal exams—at least once per year for adults, and twice per year for puppies and kittens.
- Tick preventives — All pets should be given year-round tick preventives, to avoid tapeworm infection.
- Heartworm preventives — Most heartworm preventives also include protection against intestinal parasites, so all pets should be placed on year-round heartworm prevention.
Intestinal parasites are a concerning issue for pets, but these invaders can easily be prevented with a few precautionary measures. If you think your pet has an intestinal parasite infection, contact our Fear Free team at Gentle Touch Animal Hospital, so we can devise a treatment plan.