What is a parasite?
A parasite is any organism that takes or uses resources and nutrients from another host organism by residing in or on them. We previously discussed a few ectoparasites (ticks). Intestinal parasites are those that live within the gastro-intestinal tract of their hosts. However don’t be fooled; intestinal parasites can still be found in other parts of the body. These parasites can come in all shapes and sizes but most of them are microscopic – too small for the human eye to see. The two main types of intestinal parasites are helminths (worms) and protozoa (single celled organisms). Generally, the lifecycle of an intestinal helminth parasite go from egg, to larvae, to the worm stage and the general lifecycle of an intestinal protozoan parasite go from cyst to trophozoite.
Why Should I be Worried?
Parasites living in the intestinal wall of the host organism and will lay eggs which leave through the host’s fecal matter. Your pet may pick up these parasites by ingesting either the egg or cyst if they eat something contaminated off the ground or even from stepping in a contaminated area and later grooming themselves. The eggs incubate inside your pet, hatch into larvae and mature into worms where they can live and feed in their intestine where they take their host’s blood and nutrients. Adult female worms can lay as many as 200 000 eggs in a day. Intestinal parasites can cause pets to have loose stools or diarrhea. Other symptoms may also include weight loss, anemia, vomiting, dehydration, and an overall poor appearance. Depending on the type of parasite, severe cases may even cause death. Sometimes worms can be seen in their feces or vomit as well. You too are at risk for contracting these parasites if your pet has them since the eggs are shed in their feces. Always wash your hands after handling your pet! If a pregnant dog or cat is infected with parasites, the larvae of these parasites can travel to the fetus and infect their puppies or kittens as well.
Worms: These can range from roundworms, whipworms, hookworms, tapeworms and more!
Adult roundworms (the most common one) can be found to be approximately 3-4 inches long, but they can grow to 7 inches.
Hookworms are very small and will require a microscope to identify the ova (eggs) or adult worm.
Whipworms are sometimes difficult to detect as well. The adults can range from 3-5 cm long and are narrow at one end while thicker at the other.
Tapeworms are flatworms and can be several inches long. However, they are in segments and these segments can break off and be found in your pet’s feces. Segments can be quite small and difficult to detect. To determine if your pet has been infected by these parasites, the eggs can be detected under a microscope.
Protozoa: Common single celled invaders are coccidia and giardia.
Coccidia can cause pets to have a watery, mucous type of diarrhea. Sometimes, pets will also have bloody diarrhea.
Giardia may also cause diarrhea in infected pets. The cysts can mature into trophozoites in the pet’s intestines and can be shed in their feces. However, only the cysts survive outside – the trophozoites are no longer activated once it leaves the body. Since both these parasites are protozoans, they will need to be detected under a microscope. See below for an informational video about giardia by Willard Veterinary.
What Can I Do?
Young pets are at most risk of becoming infected by intestinal parasites and it is important to begin prevention at the start. Having your pet’s fecal checked during every annual exam is an excellent first step as a preventative measure. Furthermore, pets should also be given a dewormer. At River Grove, we have an oral dewormer we recommend at every annual visit. Certain flea, tick and heartworm preventions are also equipped with intestinal parasite protection too. Finally, you can train your pet not to eat soil, grass or other objects off the ground outside to minimize risks and clean up immediately after your pet. The Companion Animal Parasite Council has an in-depth guideline for pet owners to review. Click here for more information.