Finding out that your dog has worms can definitely put a damper on your day. If your pup is suffering from a worm infestation – whether roundworms, hookworms, tapeworms, whipworms, or heartworms – it’s definitely worth your time to find out all you can about this bothersome condition, so that you’ll know what steps you need to take to help your pooch get back to good health.
When I first found out that my dog Juno (an Alaskan Husky and Collie mix) was suffering from a tapeworm infestation, I immediately set out to learn everything I could about the causes, symptoms and effects of this condition to ensure that I was giving her everything she needed to get well again. Fortunately, I was able to catch this condition pretty early and take care of it, but the thought came to me that there are probably scores of dog owners out there who may not have fared so well.
What if they had an information repository that would give them all kinds of information about worms in dogs, so that they could easily and quickly recognize what they were dealing with, as well as how to handle it? Well, that’s what this list of Frequently Asked Questions is all about. I wanted to provide dog owners everywhere with as much information as possible regarding worms in dogs, so that they can hopefully make solid, well-informed decisions regarding their pup’s health care. Alright, enough of the formalities…let’s dig in!
Q: What Are Dog Worms?
A: When I first started learning about worms in dogs, one of the things that I had to keep in mind right off the bat was that these worms are not quite the same as the kind you would use for fishing (e.g., earthworms). When people refer to dog worms, they’re actually referring to a type of parasite that lives somewhere within your dog’s organs.
The most common area where worms tend to set up shop is within your dog’s intestines, but there are other worms (such as heartworms) that live inside your dog’s heart or lungs. This is a completely disgusting concept in and of itself, but it’s the harsh reality of this troublesome condition. Some of these worms are only centimeters or inches long, while other ones (such as the tapeworm) can grow to over one foot in length! Yes, that sounds like something out of a horror movie, but again, it’s the harsh reality of this type of parasite infestation. These worms make their living by basically “stealing” nutrients in your dog’s intestines through the blood, which essentially robs your pup of getting adequate nutrition; this is one of the reasons why dogs who have severe worm infestations can begin losing weight or becoming sickly. Think about it: These worms are basically freeloading off your pup! Talk about a raw deal!
Q: How Do Dogs Get Worms?
A: Worms are pretty clever in terms of how they can find their way into your dog’s system. Many times worm eggs can “hide out” in the waste or feces of another infected animal, and once this waste has been deposited somewhere outdoors, another dog can come upon it and accidentally ingest these eggs. This can happen by way of investigating, digging near or even doing a little “taste test” of another dog’s waste. Yep, as gross as that is, this is what dogs do – and heaven knows my dog Juno is one of those kinds of dogs. She’s curious to a fault, and more than one time she’s been caught messing around with things in the wild that were questionable at best.
With the loose hygiene standards that most dogs have, it’s no wonder how they can often become victims of worm infestations. Worm larvae are often ingested by mouth due to the “inquisitive” nature of many dogs, but these parasites can also be ingested through the skin, especially on the bottom of your dog’s paws. This means that even if your dog has simply stepped in an infected dog’s waste, there’s a potential for worm eggs to be ingested from that contact. In addition, worm eggs can be transferred by way of your dog eating an infected intermediate host, such as a small rodent, or by being bitten by a flea (yes, fleas are vectors for worm eggs as well). Now in the case of heartworms, mosquitoes are the primary carrier, as they can transfer infected blood from one dog that already has worms to another one that doesn’t.
Q: How Do These Worms Grow?
A: Once the worm eggs are inside of your dog, they go through a complete life cycle system, from an egg to an adult, at which time they will begin to lay more eggs to start the whole process all over again. Here’s a basic breakdown of how these nasty parasites grow inside of your dog.
1. The Egg Stage
Not all worms lay the same amount of eggs; it largely depends on the type of species you’re dealing with. For example, roundworms can lay up to 200,000 eggs at a time (that’s crazy!!!), while whipworms lay only a fraction of that by comparison. These eggs will either reside in your dog’s intestines where they will bring about more infestation, or remain dormant in the soil until an incident like what was described above takes place.
2. The Larvae Stage
Once the eggs have been ingested, they soon hatch, and these tiny little “wormlets” make their way into your dog’s intestine where they begin to grow and thrive through their freeloading ways. If your dog is pregnant, the eggs can actually migrate from the mother to the fetal puppy by way of the mother’s milk.
3. The Adult Stage
This is where the worm is fully grown and begins to lay eggs to start the cycle again. The entire process outlined here only takes about four weeks to complete, so you can see how these little suckers can really stage a hostile takeover of your pup!
Q: How Can I Tell If My Dog Has Worms?
A: There are several symptoms that can give you an indication that your dog has worms, including:
- Vomiting (which can contain whole worms or worm fragments)
- Diarrhea (very watery or with blood)
- Listlessness, malaise or just a general lack of energy
- Appearing physically frail or weak
- Weight loss
- Reduced appetite
- Distended belly (a.k.a. “pot belly”)
- Itchy or irritated skin
- Stool that contains worm segments
- Worm segments near your dog’s anus, or in the fur on your dog’s backside
- You may see your dog scooting or dragging its bottom on the ground
- Coughing (often a sign of an advanced heartworm infestation)
- Dry or brittle hair
Even though there are quite a few different kinds of worms, the symptoms your dog might display will be quite similar across the board, which makes it difficult to determine the exact worm species based on symptoms alone.
Q: What Are The Different Types Of Dog Worms?
A: There are several different types of worms, each with their own peculiar characteristics and feeding habits. Here are some of the most common worms found in dogs:
A very prevalent type of worm found in dogs, tapeworms are long, flat worms that have crazy looking mouth parts that are basically built for latching on and sucking nutrients from their host. These suckers attach to the interior wall of your dog’s intestine, where they basically hang out for as long as the possibly can, siphoning off nutrients from your dog in full parasite fashion. Tapeworms tend to grow to greater lengths than any other type of worm; in fact, it’s not uncommon for a tapeworm to measure a foot in length or more. This nasty little creature is made up of several segments that can sometimes break off into your dog’s stool. If you were to examine your dog’s stool (admittedly not a fun job), you can identify tapeworms by looking for any small bits or pieces that look like a grain of white rice.
In fact, when your veterinarian is first examining your dog for tapeworms, one of the first things he/she will ask for is a stool sample, because that’s where these disgusting creatures just love to hang out. While you might see several tapeworm segments in your pup’s stool (or even near the opening of your dog’s anus), this doesn’t mean that the worm is being injured or dying; these nasty parasites shed segments all the time, and they can regrow those segments ad infinitum. The only way to get rid of a tapeworm permanently is to destroy its head (not always an easy task); everything else is just a temporary fix.
By far the most common type of worm that infects dogs, roundworms are basically an epidemic in puppies; in fact, nearly all puppies that are less than 3 months old are infected with roundworms. It’s just one of those facts of doggie life. For this reason, most veterinarians recommend getting your puppy treated for roundworms within one to three months of birth.
Fully grown roundworms average about three to four inches long, but they can reach lengths of up to seven inches. Roundworms are often passed from the mother to her puppy in utero, or by way of her milk during feeding sessions.
This type of worm is quite prevalent across the United States and Canada. It has been estimated that nearly 20% of all dogs in these regions are infected with hookworms. These savage parasites have sharp mouth parts that are built for hooking into their host’s intestinal wall (hence the name) and feeding on their host’s blood to survive. Adult hookworms typically reside in your dog’s large intestine, and they can cause diarrhea, pale gums, weakness, and/or vomiting due to their parasitic activity.
While these parasites are some of the most vicious creatures out there, they are surprisingly small, topping out at less than an inch in length. Veterinarians typically look for hookworms by investigating your dog’s stool under a microscope. Hookworm eggs and larvae are remarkably resilient, and they can be transferred by ingestion as well as through penetration of the skin.
These disgusting little parasites can typically be identified by their thread-like appearance, where one end of the worm is slightly larger than the other end. Not one for intense exploration, whipworms typically set up shop inside the first section of your dog’s large intestine, known as the cecum. Once they’re inside of your dog, they try to remain there undetected so that they can continue carrying out their parasitic activities. Whipworms lay a relatively small amount of eggs in comparison to other worms, which makes it slightly more difficult for veterinarians to identify them when examining your dog’s stool sample under a microscope.
Perhaps one of the most dangerous parasites in the worm category, heartworms are spread through a slightly different means than their counterparts; they are actually transferred to dogs by way of infected mosquitoes. When a mosquito bites an animal that has been infected with heartworms, it transfers microfilaria (tiny heartworms in their immature stage) to other dogs by way of infected blood.
Heartworms are nefarious little suckers, because they actually establish their home inside of your dog’s heart, lungs and/or the associated blood vessels of these organs. Once your dog has been infected by a heartworm, he/she may start coughing, wheezing or losing weight, and your poor pup may get tired very easily, even after only a moderate amount of exercise. These nefarious parasites can grow up to one foot in length, and in the advanced stages of a heartworm infestation, your dog’s lungs, heart and other internal organs can sustain significant damage from their activity.
Q: Can A Dog Die From Having Worms?
A: While these parasites are far from friendly, the good news is that most worms do not cause major health issues, and are just more of a nuisance than anything else.
Roundworms and tapeworms can hang out in your dog’s intestines for long periods of time undetected, because they can absorb nutrients without damaging your pup’s intestinal wall.
Hookworms, on the other hand, are a little greedier, and over time they can actually chew through your pup’s intestinal lining, causing more significant issues such as inflammation and blood loss. Unfortunately, some hookworm infestations can get out of control, which can make adult dogs very ill, and can even kill puppies. It’s not so much the worms themselves that are fatal; it’s the anemia that is brought on by the worm’s feeding habits that can prove highly dangerous for young puppies.
Heartworms also have the potential to become fatal if left unchecked or untreated, because they can begin to weaken the muscles of the heart, and obstruct lung function as well. Sadly, some dogs have died from sudden heart failure due to an extreme heartworm infestation.
Q: Can Humans Get Worms From Dogs?
A: I really hate to even answer this question, because it’s not a pretty picture. Yes, humans can get roundworms, hookworms and tapeworms from dogs.
If you make a habit of “kissing” your pup, there’s a good chance that you could be subject to ingesting worms yourself, especially if you’re not sure where your dog’s mouth has been (we’ll leave it at that). Also, any type of contact you accidentally make with your dog’s poop can be a potential contamination point.
Persons who have occupations that require crawling or lying on the ground for extended periods of time (e.g., electricians, home inspectors, plumbers, etc.) can be at risk of accidentally ingesting eggs through infected soil. In addition, it’s not a good idea to walk barefoot near any place where your dog regularly poops. The good news is that any type of worm infestation in humans is easily treatable by seeking medical help.
Q: How Does A Veterinarian Find Out If My Dog Has Worms?
A: The most common method is to examine your dog’s stool. In fact, when you set your appointment, most of the time your vet will ask you to bring a sample of your dog’s stool with you in a sealed plastic bag. This was never difficult for me, given my dog’s very active digestion and elimination schedule. The vet will normally examine the stool under a microscope to find out if worms are present. If your dog has been diagnosed with heartworms, additional testing may be required, such as a urinalysis or a complete blood count.
Q: What Are Some Of The Medicines That Veterinarians Use To Get Rid Of Worms In My Dog?
A: Here are some of the most prevalent medications in use today to treat worms in dogs:
This is a veteran product on the market, having been around for quite a long time. The only worms that Piperazine can kill are roundworms, and even then it can only kill worms that are currently residing in your dog’s intestine, not worms that are currently in the process of migration.
This one kills a variety of parasite species, and is often the medicine of choice when the vet has difficulty identifying the exact species of parasite your dog is dealing with. A typical Fenbendazole treatment will require three consecutive days of administering the medicine to really get the job done.
This medicine is safe, and highly effective against removing hookworms and roundworms. As long as you follow the dosage recommendations, you can even safely give it to baby puppies or pregnant dogs.
This medicine is a tapeworm assassin, and it is typically administered either orally or by injection. Many veterinarians prefer to administer Praziquantel by injection to ensure that the dog doesn’t just vomit or spit it out later. Praziquantel should never be given to puppies that are under four weeks of age, and extra caution should be exercised when administering it to animals with disabilities.
This is another medicine that is highly effective against tapeworms, but it does not address any other parasite species.
Praziquantel + Pyrantel Pamoate + Febantel
This powerful combination of medicines will knock out a wide variety of parasites that your dog might be dealing with. It should be noted that the Febantel aspect of this anti-parasite combo is highly effective against whipworms.
Q: What Can I Do To Ensure That My Dog Will Never Get Worms Again?
A: While there are no 100% guarantees in life (death and taxes excluded), you can take a handful of effective preventative measures to greatly reduce the risk of your dog becoming infected with worms again:
- Try not to let your dog go full-on “free range”, especially if your pup is particularly curious like mine. Keep your pooch on a leash to keep it from snooping around the feces of other dogs.
- Doggie parks are awesome, but you really have no way of knowing what type of dogs your pup might interact with while you’re there in terms of what their parasite status might be. This is not to say that you should always avoid doggie parks, but rather that you should just be ready to assume those risks when you’re in that given environment.
- If you can at all help it, hire a pet sitter versus boarding your dog at a kennel or animal hospital when you have to go on an extended trip where Fido can’t come.
- Be vigilant about maintaining good hygiene around the house, especially when it comes to disposing of your dog’s stool promptly. Be sure to wear gloves when handling your pup’s poop, and after you have bagged it, go ahead and put it in your outside trash can.
- Try to keep your grass mowed and well-maintained, and try to remove clutter around the yard to keep potentially infected wild animals (rats, etc.) from being attracted to your area.
- It’s not a bad idea to keep your pup on a regular regimen of some type of flea, tick or heartworm control medicine that is designed to prevent intestinal parasites as well.
- Do your best to maintain a flea-free environment in your home by regularly cleaning carpets, rugs, drapes, furnishings, etc., as fleas are often vectors for worm eggs as well.
Okay, you have now been furnished with plenty of information regarding worms in dogs. Keep it handy as a reference, and use it to keep those nasty parasites from infecting your pooch!