By definition, a parasite is an organism that lives in or on another host and gets its nutrients or at the expense of the host. There are three types of parasites that affect dogs, cats, and humans: ectoparasites, helminths, and protozoa.
What does this mean to you, a compassionate and responsible pet owner?
There are creepy crawlies, some visible to the naked eye and many invisible, that can live on or in your furry friend and cause them harm. Some parasites can even be passed back and forth between humans and their pets. But no need to fret—we have effective ways to diagnose, treat and prevent parasites from hurting you and your four-legged friends.
Types of parasites in dogs:
Ectoparasites, like fleas and ticks, are the easiest to diagnose. Though the egg and larval stages are tiny, barely the size of the period at the end of this sentence, engorged ticks and adult fleas can be seen with the naked eye. Ticks like to feed in places they aren’t likely to be found, like on ears, between toes, under the tail and near the groin or elbows. Fleas are fast-moving pests that tend to congregate where they can’t be reached by a chewing dog’s chompers, namely near the base of the tail; however, they can be caught crawling just about anywhere. It’s more likely you will find the tell-tale evidence of flea “dirt”, flea fecal material, that looks like ground pepper and turns a red-brown color when placed on a damp paper towel. A fine-toothed flea comb can be used to grasp hairs and trap flea dirt to test.
Internal parasites such as heartworms, whipworms and giardia are more difficult to detect. Blood tests will indicate the presence of heartworms. Microscopic inspection of a fresh stool sample is necessary to diagnose parasites that infect the gastrointestinal system. To compound the matter, not all life stages of parasites are detectable on laboratory tests. For this reason, your veterinarian may request multiple blood or fecal samples given over several weeks to months.
How do dogs act when they have parasites?
What are the symptoms your pet may have a parasite problem, and how alarmed should you be? Puppies and kittens are often infected with intestinal worms through nursing and during pregnancy. It’s not uncommon to see a new pup present with diarrhea and a distended-looking belly.
Vomiting is another common symptom of intestinal parasite infection. Transmission and re-infection occur in pets when fecal material containing parasites eggs or cysts are ingested. Sometimes direct contact with a parasite, such as hookworms, occurs through broken skin.
Heartworm larvae are transmitted by the bite of a mosquito, and tapeworms can be acquired through ingesting an infected flea. Symptoms of both infections can cause weight loss and lethargy. In the case of heartworm disease, difficulty breathing, exercise intolerance, and in severe cases, ultimately death.
Fleas can lead to intense itching and hair loss while ticks often go unnoticed until the diseases they carry, such as Lyme disease or rocky mountain spotted fever, cause signs of illness. Tick-borne diseases can be great pretenders, often mimicking the symptoms of other illnesses. They can cause low platelet count and bleeding, lameness, lethargy, coughing, vomiting, diarrhea and general malaise.
How are parasites treated in dogs?
The good news is that most parasite infestations are very treatable.
Deworming medications such as ivermectin are effective at killing many internal parasites. Heartworms can be treated with a series of injections, though side effects of the treatment can be severe and the treatment costly. Protozoal parasites such as coccidia and giardia can be treated with oral medications such as fenbendazole or sulfadimethoxine, an antibiotic.
There are several topical treatments that can be used to kill fleas and ticks. Many of the same medications used for treatment can be used topically as prevention. Advantix, Revolution, Frontline and Bravecto are veterinary-prescribed products with a high degree of efficacy. Newer oral medications such as Simparica Trio kill fleas and ticks, as well as internal parasites such as roundworms, hookworms and heartworm larvae before they mature in the respiratory tract.
How to protect your pet from parasites:
- Topical and oral preventatives should be given to your dog year-round to minimize the opportunities for parasites to reproduce.
- Attend your pet’s yearly vet visits to update vaccines and receive regular check-ups.
- Keep up with the housekeeping. Wash bedding regularly and vacuum couch cushions and along baseboards.
- Maintain your yard. Eliminate brush and yard debris, and pick up pet poop daily. If eggs can’t hatch and pets can’t consume fecal matter, the likelihood of infection decreases.
- Do not feed wildlife or encourage stray animals to visit your yard by setting out shelters or food.
- Eliminate free-standing water so heartworm-carrying mosquitoes can’t breed. Empty your outdoor water bowl and only refill when needed. Also, check for various puddles of water in your yard and ensure your pet cannot reach them.
- Check your dog’s fur for hitchhiking ticks when you return from an outdoor adventure.
- Be a good human; pick up your own pet’s waste if you are out on a walk or at a dog park!