We often worry about our pet’s health when it comes to parasites but many of us don’t realise that we might be at risk too.
Almost all pets will be affected by worms at some point, so regular worming is advisable to help combat these unwelcome passengers. Most of us worm our pets because we want to save them from any discomfort – but it’s also an essential part of reducing the risk to us as well. Some of the parasites that affect our pets, for example roundworm and hookworm, can also cause disease in you and your family. Here’s our guide to what your pet could catch and how you can reduce the risks to both you and your pet.
Dogs and cats pick up roundworm from infected soil, from hunting behaviour, or from their mother’s milk. Pregnant dogs can even pass roundworm on to their puppies via the placenta, so the majority of puppies are infected before they’re born. Adult dogs may not show signs of infection, but puppies can have symptoms that are more serious, including a pot belly, vomiting and diarrhoea, and it can even be fatal in severe cases.
Roundworm can also cause disease in humans if we unknowingly eat the microscopic eggs that infected dogs and cats shed in their poo. People can come into contact with roundworm eggs from soil (where they can survive for years), from eating food such as salad that’s not been properly washed, or from contact with pets, as eggs can stick to a cat or dog’s fur. An untreated bitch and her puppies are estimated to produce around 15 million roundworm eggs daily, so people should be particularly careful with hygiene when handling puppies and kittens. Young children are also at risk of infection; playing outside in the dirt and not washing their hands well enough makes them prime targets for coming into contact with roundworm eggs.
If we do end up accidentally swallowing roundworm eggs, our immune system may step in and tackle the problem. However in some cases the larvae of this parasite migrate within our bodies where they can cause severe symptoms. If the larvae end up in the eye (a condition called ocular larva migrans), it can result in blindness. This condition, while rare, is obviously devastating and one of the reasons why it’s so important that our pets are regularly treated for roundworm.
Dogs and cats can become infected with tapeworm by swallowing infected fleas, from hunting or from scavenging (for example by eating uncooked meat).
Tapeworms are long segmented worms that live in the intestine. Small egg-filled segments break off and are passed out in your pet’s faeces – these are not alive, but remain mobile for some time, so you may see these tiny white segments that look like grains of rice crawling around the back end of your animal, or in its poo. This can lead to an itchy bottom in your pet, causing them to “scoot” along the ground in an attempt to relieve the itch. Symptoms of a tapeworm infection can include weight loss and general malaise, although often animals will not show any symptoms at all, so it’s a good idea to keep up a regular worming schedule to help combat these unwanted passengers.
Humans can get a human-specific tapeworm by eating certain meat that isn’t cooked properly. It’s also possible for tapeworms to be transmitted directly from pets to humans; we can become infected with the flea tapeworm if we eat an infected flea, although it’s unusual for this to happen. Certain species of tapeworm can also cause something called “hydatid disease” in people, where cysts grow in our organs, causing disease.
Hookworm can be picked up by pets that eat hookworm larvae from the soil. Symptoms aren’t common in adult pets, but can be more serious in young dogs, and can include diarrhoea, lethargy and anaemia.
Hookworm can also affect people; if we walk across a contaminated area in bare feet the larvae can burrow into our skin and cause irritation and itching.
Lungworm (Angiostrongylus vasorum) is thankfully not a threat to people, but it is particularly bad news for dogs: it can cause serious health problems, and can even be fatal. Dogs ingest lungworm larvae when they accidentally or deliberately eat snails and slugs (or even their slime) or frogs. Once ingested, the larvae make their way to the heart, where they grow into adult worms and produce eggs. These eggs travel to the lungs and hatch into larvae that the dog will cough up, swallow, and then pass out in its poo – ready to infect more snails and slugs and repeat the cycle.
Lungworm is a very nasty parasite, and one that is spreading throughout the UK. You can use this online lungworm locator to discover if lungworm has been reported in your area.
Symptoms are varied, and can include coughing, abnormal bleeding, general sickness and behavioural changes such as lethargy or depression. If you think your dog is infected, it’s important to go to the vet immediately. Thankfully, there are treatments available for lungworm and, if caught in time, most dogs will make a full recovery.
The good news is that lungworm is preventable, speak to your vet about a monthly prevention plan for this parasite.
Dealing with worms
There are a range of worming products available including spot-ons and tablets. It is recommended that pets are wormed at least every 3 months, although to protect against the lungworm (Angiostrongylus vasorum) in dogs, a preventative product needs to be given monthly. Speak to your vet about a preventative product for lungworm, as not all worming products are effective against this parasite.
Did you know…
Adult tapeworms in humans can measure more than 80 feet and can survive for as long as 30 years!1 That's a 30th birthday party nobody wants to go to!
For more information on effective worming treatments, speak to your vet.
1 Mayo Clinic. Tapeworm Infection: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tapeworm/symptoms-causes/syc-20378174