Did you know that a parasite, which could pose a serious health risk to your dog, may be lurking in your garden?
It’s true! Ordinary slugs and snails you find in your back garden can carry a parasite called lungworm. If your dog becomes infected – often after eating a slug or snail – the parasite can pose a real threat to their health and the disease may even prove to be fatal.
Make sure you know how to spot the warning signs so you can help keep your dog safe.
Why does my dog eat slugs and snails?
Dogs often ingest them by accident. When they’re playing in the garden or in the great outdoors, dogs may chew on a toy which has a slug or snail on it, or drink from puddles of water containing the creatures.
Slugs even produce a foul-tasting substance as a defence mechanism, but this isn’t always enough to stop dogs eating them anyway.
Can slugs and snails harm my dog?
Slugs and snails can carry the lungworm parasite, which can lead to serious health issues if passed on to your dog.
Can the slime produced by snails and slugs harm my dog too?
Research has found that the lungworm larvae can be released into the slime produced by slugs1. It means that your dog may become infected simply by ingesting the slime – your pet doesn’t need to eat an entire slug or snail to be at risk of lungworm.
What actually is lungworm?
Lungworm (which is scientifically known as Angiostrongylus vasorum) is a parasitic worm which can be carried by dogs, foxes and other wild canids.
Lungworm has spread considerably in recent years and is now endemic in much of the UK. A survey by researchers at the Royal Veterinary College in London found that one in five veterinary practices in the UK has reported at least one clinical case in a dog.2
How do dogs become infected by lungworm?
Lungworm larvae are carried by infected slugs and snails. It can be passed on to dogs if they deliberately or accidentally eat these common garden visitors while rummaging through undergrowth, drinking from puddles, or playing with toys that have tiny slugs or snails stuck to them.
Once a dog is infected, they will pass lungworm larvae in their faeces. Any slugs and snails that come into contact with the dog poo may then become infected with the parasite. Foxes can also carry lungworm, and play a part in spreading the parasite around the country.
With more people travelling in the UK with their pets, and foxes roaming up to fifty kilometres, there is a very real risk that this parasite will continue to spread around the UK. Frogs can also carry the larvae, posing an additional risk to dogs.3
What risks does lungworm pose?
The signs of lungworm can be easily confused with other illnesses, so it is important to consult your vet immediately if your pet displays any of the following:
- Breathing problems, including a cough, are common signs – but not all dogs with lungworm will cough, so you can’t rule out lungworm just because your dog isn’t coughing
- Changes in behaviour – depression, lethargy or seizures
- General sickness – weight loss, poor appetite, vomiting or diarrhoea
- Poor blood clotting – for example, excessive bleeding from minor wounds, nose bleeds, bleeding into the eyes or paleness around the eyes and gums indicating possible anaemia
Dogs may show just one of these signs or a combination of them.
All of these signs can be caused by other diseases, which makes lungworm diagnosis tricky. The parasite can be fatal if left untreated, so it’s important to get your dog checked over by a vet if you have any concerns.
What should I do if I see my dog eat a slug or snail?
Not all snails and slugs carry the lungworm parasite. But, if you live in an area where cases of lungworm in dogs have been reported and you suspect your dog has eaten a slug or a snail, you should contact your vet right away.
If you notice any unusual signs in your dog, or think they may be infected, take your pet to the vet and discuss your concerns.
If your dog is diagnosed with lungworm, treatment is available and, provided it is caught early enough, many dogs will make a full recovery. Even better, prevention is available too; a monthly treatment from your vet can stop your dog becoming infected in the first place.
Which dogs are particularly at risk of a lungworm infection?
Although any dog can become infected with lungworm, studies have shown that younger dogs are more likely to be affected, possibly due to their more inquisitive nature. However all ages of dog, and any breed, can be affected by lungworm.
Dogs that are known to eat slugs and snails are also considered at high risk, but remember slugs and snails can be tiny and you may have no idea that your dog has eaten one.
Which areas put my dog at greater risk of lungworm?
Although lungworm was once confined to the south, in areas including the Home Counties, Devon, Cornwall and the south of Wales, cases are now being reported across most of the UK and Ireland.
Find out if any cases have been reported in your area by visiting our lungworm map. You can also use the map to report a lungworm infection in your dog, helping to protect other dogs by alerting local owners to the risk.
How do I prevent my dog from getting lungworm?
If spotted and treated early enough many dogs will make a full recovery. But as this parasite can prove to be fatal in dogs, the best way to ensure your pet is protected is by regularly using a product that acts as a preventative.
But not all wormers are effective against lungworm, so be sure to ask your vet for advice.
Remember, lungworm preventative treatment must be given monthly. Using a product every three months (as is advised to protect against many other worms) will not prevent an infection because it leaves your dog unprotected for too long between doses.
How do I stop my dog from eating slugs and snails?
It’s difficult to keep an eye on your dog at all times but you can cut the risk of lungworm easily with a few tweaks.
- Be vigilant - Bring your dog’s toys and water bowls inside overnight to prevent infected snails and slugs contaminating them. If you do leave them out in the garden, ensure you wash them thoroughly before your pooch starts playing, and regularly refresh their drinking water. If your dog loves to rummage in the garden, check on them frequently in case they’re in a high risk slug or snail area.
- Monitor the number of snails in your garden - If your garden is popular among slugs and snails, you may want to consider using a non-toxic way of controlling the population.
- Be a responsible pet owner - Picking up your pet’s poo should be routine, but when it comes to controlling lungworm, it’s particularly important to reduce the spread of lungworm.
Did you know…?
The average UK garden is thought to contain more than 20,000 snails and slugs4, any one of which could be carrying lungworm larvae.
1 Conboy G et al., Parasitol Res (2017), 116: S41-S54
2 Kirk et al., Vet Record (2014), 175, 118