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Tell me about canine intestinal worms

Worms - roundworms, hookworms, tapeworms, whipworms, and heartworms - are parasites that can live inside your dog or cat, causing anemia (low levels of red blood cells), lethargy, poor appetite, and even death.

Pet owners should ask their veterinarians which parasites to watch for and take preventative measures because worms have various geographical distributions (e.g., heartworm is more common among cats in warmer climates). Medications are commonly used to prevent worm infections. 


Roundworms (Toxocara species)
Roundworm infection is transmitted through ingestion of eggs in an infected rodent, infected soil, or milk from an infected mother. The eggs hatch into larvae in the stomach, and the larvae travel to the small intestine where they mature into adults. The adults lay eggs, which pass out of the pet in feces. The worms can also be transmitted from mother to puppies or kittens in utero.

If humans ingest roundworm eggs, the eggs can cause infection. It is important to wash hands after handling dog feces. Children should not be allowed to play on soil where dogs defecate.

Symptoms typically include the following:

  • Bloated belly
  • Blood or mucus in the stool
  • Diarrhea
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting

Severe infection can create intestinal obstruction and cause death in puppies and kittens.

Roundworm is diagnosed by examining the feces for the presence of eggs.

Several oral medications are available for the treatment of roundworms. Treatment generally requires more than a single dose.

Pet owners should discuss the options with their veterinarian and ask whether monthly preventative medication (e.g., Sentinel®, Heartgard Plus®) is necessary.

Hookworms (Ancylostoma)
Hookworms are the most common canine intestinal parasite in the United States, infecting nearly 20% of all dogs. Hookworms attach to a dog's intestinal lining with hooklike teeth.

Hookworm infection is transmitted by ingesting the infective larvae (which usually live in soil) or by the larvae attaching to and burrowing through the dog's skin. Once inside the dog's body, larvae travel to the small intestine, mature, mate, and lay eggs. The eggs pass into the soil through the dog's feces. Hookworm can also be transmitted through a nursing mother's milk.

Since hookworms can penetrate skin tissue, it is possible for people to pick up the larvae when walking barefoot on infected soil. Children should not be allowed to play in areas where dogs defecate.

Symptoms of hookworm infection include the following:

  • Anemia (severe cases)
  • Diarrhea
  • Diminished strength and vitality

The worms feed on the host's blood. Puppies can develop life-threatening anemia from blood loss even before eggs are detectable in the feces.

Hookworm disease is diagnosed by examining the feces for eggs.

Several oral medications are available for the treatment of hookworms and several preventative monthly medications are also available. Pet owners should discuss the options with their veterinarian.

Whipworm infection is transmitted by ingesting eggs that live in the soil. Once inside the host, the eggs hatch into larvae that travel to the large intestine and embed their long, whiplike tail into the intestinal wall. The larvae mature, mate, and lay eggs, which pass through the feces and into the soil.

Whipworm infection does not always cause symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they may include the following:

  • Anemia
  • Dehydration
  • Diarrhea, especially recurrent bouts of diarrhea with stool that has blood or mucus
  • Diminished strength and vitality
  • Weight loss

Whipworm is usually diagnosed by examining the feces for eggs. Infection can be difficult to diagnose and may require several fecal exams.

Several oral medications are available for the treatment of whipworm and monthly preventative medications also are available. Pet owners should discuss the options with their veterinarian.

Tapeworms are long, segmented worms that can live in a pet's small intestine. There are several species of tapeworms. For example, Dipylidium caninum develop as larvae in fleas (the disease carrier) and are transmitted when the cat or dog ingests the fleas while grooming. Taenia tapeworms are transmitted when a dog or cat eats infective eggs, which live in the soil or larvae, which live in small rodents. Taenia infection is more common among hunting dogs and cats.

Tapeworm infection generally causes very little harm to the host animal. Depending on the species, severe infection may cause the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Nervousness
  • Severe itching around the anus
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss

Diagnosis is made by observing tapeworm segments, which look like rice, in the stool, near the anus, or on the pet's fur.

Treatment usually involves a single dose of praziquantel (e.g., Droncit®, Drontal Plus®, Rintal®, Vercom®). Preventative measures include flea control and, if possible, keeping your pet from hunting rodents.


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