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Get to know your worms

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Worms are among the most common parasites of cats and dogs, and have the potential to cause health problems in our pets, and even disease in us. Learn about the most common worm species, how to spot the symptoms of worms, and how to help keep your pet’s health protected.
Young boy and dog play on grass

There are lots of different types of worms that can affect UK pets, the main species to be aware of are roundworms, tapeworms, hookworms, whipworms and lungworm.  Some worms can cause disease in people too, so worming pets is important to help reduce the risk to yourself and your family too. 

Roundworms are the most common intestinal parasite found in both cats and dogs. Long, white and spaghetti-like, they live in the small intestines of infected pets.  Adult dogs and cats may show no obvious signs, but puppies and kittens can be more severely affected, symptoms can include vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy, poor coat condition, and young animals may have a pot-belly and slow growth. Infected pets pass roundworm eggs out into their faeces, which find their way into the soil.    If people accidentally swallow these eggs, the larvae of this parasite can travel in our bodies causing disease.  If the larvae travel to the eyes, they can potentially cause blindness- this is rare, but is one of the reasons that worming our pets regularly is so important, to help reduce this risk. 

Tapeworms are segmented worms that live in the small intestine of infected pets.  Segments containing eggs are released from the worm and pass out into the pet’s faeces, they remain mobile for some time and can sometimes be seen in the pet’s faeces resembling tiny crawling rice grains.  The most common tapeworm is called the “flea tapeworm”, and as its name suggests, is contracted when pets swallow infected fleas.

Hookworms can be picked up if your pet eats or walks on soil containing hookworm larvae.  They are found in UK dogs, but less commonly in cats.  These worms latch on to the lining of your pet’s intestine and feed on your pet’s blood.  Adult animals may not show any symptoms, but in younger animals diarrhoea containing blood, and anaemia may occur.  If people walk barefoot over soil containing hookworm larvae, the larvae can burrow into the skin and cause intense itching. 

Whipworms can affect dogs in the UK, but rarely cats.  If low numbers of worms are present dogs may not show symptoms, but in heavy infestations the worms cause damage to the intestines with their whip like tails which can lead to diarrhoea containing blood. 

There are lots of different types of lungworm, but one in particular that affects dogs (called Angiostrongylus vasorum) can be fatal if left untreated.  Dogs become infected by eating infected slugs and snails, or even their slime.  Symptoms can vary but may include respiratory signs such as a cough, bleeding abnormalities, neurological signs and other more general signs such as lethargy, depression, vomiting and diarrhoea.  Dogs may just show one of these signs, or any combination of them.

Heartworm (Dirofilaria immitis) is transmitted by mosquitoes, and is not a disease that is present in the UK.  In other parts of the world though heartworm can cause serious disease - worms live in the heart and can grow up to 30cms in length.  Symptoms can include coughing, tiring easily and even heart failure.  If you are taking your pet abroad, speak to your vet about this parasite, as preventative products are available. 

Dealing with worms
It is not always possible to spot a worm infestation, as your pet may not show any obvious outward signs, but it’s worth remembering that some worms can also cause disease in people, so regularly worming your pet is advisable not just for the health of your pet, but in order to help protect you and your family from the potentially harmful effects of parasites too. 

The usual recommendation for pets is to worm them at least every three months.  There are a variety of options available for worming your pets.

However, when it comes to lungworm in dogs, prevention must be monthly and can only be prescribed by your vet; worming every three months will not prevent lungworm. Always speak to your vet, as not all wormers are effective against this particular parasite. Lungworm has spread throughout the UK in recent years, and can be fatal to dogs; use this online lungworm locator to check if it’s been reported in your area [link] and speak to your vet about a monthly lungworm prevention plan. 

Did you know…

A survey carried out in the Netherlands found roundworm eggs in 15% of potting plant soil.1 So even animals that spend most of their time indoors can still be at risk of exposure to worms.

To find out more about effective worming options for cats and dogs speak to your vet.

1 Tracking ticks in the Netherlands. Veterinary Record. February 2006 - Volume 158 - 7

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