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They’re as disgusting as they are dangerous, these parasites “worm” their way into your dog or cat more easily than you might imagine. Whether it’s the litter box, dog park, patch of dirt or even a flea, worms move quickly from microscopic egg to full-blown adult once they find a host. Once inside, worms move easily through your pet’s system, latching on to the intestines where they rob animals of blood and nutrients.
Left unchecked, worms can cause weight loss and anemia, weakness, poor appearance, vomiting and a lot of other problems. What’s more, worms aren’t just dangerous to your dog and cat. They also put people at risk, especially children.
Worms are pretty creative when it comes to infestation. In fact, their eggs are usually found in soil that is contaminated by waste from infected dogs and cats. So whether your pet takes a bit of soil while digging, grooming or investigating the waste of another animal, the eggs have a chance to be ingested and suddenly your dog or cat can become infested.
Once inside your dog or cat, the worms live out their entire lifecycle — from egg to larvae to adult — that is until you and your veterinarian send them on their way with an effective dewormer treatment.
Stage 1: The Eggs. Different worms have different eggs that are laid in varying numbers. A roundworm, for example, can produce as many as 200,000 eggs in a single day, while the whipworm lays relatively few. Some eggs stay in the intestine where they will spend their entire lives and most eggs are laid with the intention of infesting new host animals. Worm eggs can lay dormant in the soil for years.
Stage 2: The Larvae. Soon after being eaten, the eggs hatch and larvae emerge. The worm larvae move quickly to the intestine where they grow into adults. If the dog or cat is pregnant, the larvae may migrate through the mother and infect the fetal puppy or kitten.
Stage 3: The Adult. Once the larvae get to the intestine, they mature into adult worms and begin laying eggs — starting the cycle again. It takes about four weeks from the time a dog or cat eats the eggs for an adult worm to mature in the animal’s intestine and start laying eggs.
When we talk about worms that infest your cats and dogs, we’re actually talking about several different types — with roundworms, hookworms and tapeworms being the most common.
Roundworms. By far the most common worm parasite, roundworms account for the majority of worm infestations in dogs and cats. In fact, almost all puppies less than three months old are infected. Adult roundworms are about 3-4 inches long, but can be up to 7 inches. Nursing kittens and puppies can become infected through milk, however only dogs can become infected in utero. Your veterinarian can diagnose roundworms by examining your pet’s feces under a microscope for eggs.
Hookworms. Common across the U.S. and Canada, hookworms are more common in dogs than in cats, with an estimated 19 percent of dogs being infected. With hook-like mouths and well-developed cutting mouthparts, these are not friendly worms. Adults reside in the small intestine, attached to the intestine walls where they feed on blood. Hookworms are diagnosed by an examination of the feces for eggs using a microscope. However, in addition to infestation by ingesting eggs, hookworm larvae are also able to penetrate the skin of pets and people alike.
Tapeworms. These flat worms have a head with suckers to attach to the walls of the small intestines and their larvae can live in the tissue of the host animal. Segments of the tapeworm resembling grains of rice can often be seen on the cat’s or dog’s hind end, however tapeworms are difficult to diagnose accurately, so prevention using regular de-wormers is especially important.
Whipworms. Also more common in dogs than in cats, whipworms resemble tiny threads and one end is slightly larger than the other. These worms live in the first section of the large intestine, called the cecum. Because whipworms lay very few eggs, it may require several microscopic examinations of your pet’s feces to diagnose hookworms.
Heartworms. While dangerous to your dog and cat, heartworms are not spread like these other worms. They are the result of mosquitoes and infect both dogs and cats.
While found in soil throughout North America and the world, these parasites are not your garden-variety worms. As a matter of fact, worms pose quite a threat to dogs, cats, people and other animals because they can easily infest your pet. Very often the symptoms go unnoticed until the infestation has become significant.
Size and shape. Roundworms, hookworms, whipworms and tapeworms are the most common culprits when it comes to parasitical worms. Most worms are round and can grow to varying lengths, from just a few inches to as many as 7 inches. Tapeworms are flatworms and can grow as long as 8 inches.
Mobility. Once these worms are in your pet, they like to stay there, unnoticed, while they rob your dog and cat of vital nutrients. As larvae, they can move freely throughout your pet’s system and cause problems beyond the intestine if they find their way into the liver, eye or lungs. Larvae can even lay dormant in the tissues of animals waiting to become active.
Food. Just like you’d expect from a parasite, roundworms, hookworms, whipworms and tapeworms feed off the blood of their host dog, cat or person.
Infestations. Worm infestations are difficult to eliminate. In just one week, two infected puppies can shed more than 20 million eggs, enough to contaminate a 2,800 square-foot yard. To effectively end an infestation you not only need to kill the mature worm, you also need to eliminate larvae and eggs. That’s why veterinarians will recommend a series of treatments and, more importantly, recommend steps to prevent the chance of infestation.
Environment. Worms are found in living hosts and are spread primarily by eggs that are passed through the pet’s feces. Their eggs can survive for years in the soil, long after any evidence of pet waste has disappeared. This allows worms to survive virtually anywhere you find pets or people — from backyards and sandboxes to dog parks. So vigilance is required to prevent worm infestation.