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Getting Familiar with Worms and How They Affect Your Pet’s Health

Veterinarian Reviewed by Dr. Janice Huntingford, DVM on July 10, 2018
Posted in Cats

Every pet owner has heard of worms—the often-microscopic parasites that infect your dog or cat and spread through eggs. What pet owners often don’t realize, though, is just how common worms are in house pets.

Not all worms are the same. There are numerous types of worms, many of which are common in the digestive tract, while others are found in the heart, lungs and other major organs. Worms can infect dogs and cats quickly and easily through infected materials, which is why keeping your home surroundings clean is so important, especially for puppies.

As parasites, worms will attach themselves to your pet’s insides and begin draining it of nutrients it needs to survive. This usually results in a lethargic, sick pet. However, some pets are merely carriers of the parasites and do not show any symptoms.

In order to adequately prevent and treat worms, pet owners must first understand the differences between them and what to look out for in case your pet contracts them.

Types and characteristics of worms

Most types of parasitic worms drain your cat or dog of their blood and nutrients, making them tired, anemic and often underweight. Pets may experience a rapid increase in appetite to compensate or may lay around, barely moving. Other symptoms may include:

  • Bloody stools
  • Diarrhea
  • Itching anus or scooting
  • Lethargy
  • Poor, dry coat appearance
  • Ravenous appetite
  • Visible worms in stool
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss

While not all worms can lead to death, some parasitic infections can cause severe harm to your pets and lead to fatalities. Death is much more common in puppies, which have less mature immune systems and are unable to fight off parasites. Some parasites also have the capability to infect humans and affect their health, especially children.

Different types of worms may live in differing parts of your pet’s body. Most of the common worms are found in the intestines, but heartworms are another common parasite that lives in the heart:

  • Roundworms: Roundworms are found in the intestinal tract and can grow up to 5 inches in length. These worms are extremely common in kittens and puppies—most are born with them or get them soon after birth by drinking infected milk from their mothers. Roundworms have very hard, resilient eggs that can live in the environment for years. Pets with roundworms may die from extreme infestations due to intestinal blockages.
  • Hookworms: Hookworms attach themselves to the small intestine of cats and dogs and feed on tissue and blood. They are most likely to cause anemia due to the loss of blood, as well as poor stamina and weight loss.
  • Tapeworms: Perhaps one of the most familiar parasites, tapeworms burrow within the digestive tract and float their long bodies through the intestine, absorbing nutrients. Tapeworms have many small segments that break off and can be found in your pet’s feces or near its anus.
  • Whipworms: Whipworms are named for their body shape. They feed off the host’s blood in the intestinal tract and usually cause chronic weight loss and diarrhea. Serious infestations can lead to death.
  • Heartworms: Unlike the above-mentioned worms, heartworms do not live in the GI tract, but rather infect the heart and blood vessels of the lungs. These parasites can affect blood flow within the body, cause shortness of breath and coughing and can be fatal if left untreated.

Worm infection and prevention

Most worms are spread through eggs, which are present in water, fecal matter, dirt and other infected hosts. Mothers of puppies and kittens can also transmit parasites through the placenta or through milk after birth. Some worms are very resilient and can live as dormant eggs in the environment for years.

Many puppies and kittens are born with worms or get them shortly after birth, which is why a routine de-wormer treatment is recommended, particularly for younger pets. To help bolster your pet’s immune system, you can also feed them supplements to prevent infection.

Keeping living areas clean and controlling your pet’s access to other pet’s fecal matter can also help prevent your pet from coming in contact with parasites. Your vet should check your pet’s feces during their routine yearly check-up to make sure no worms are present.

If your pet does become infected, your vet should prescribe a medication to eradicate the worms. They also can suggest de-wormer solutions that will work on the types of worms most common for your pet.

With careful attention to your furry friend’s surroundings and a routine check-up at the vet, you should be able to prevent your pet from contracting these nasty parasites, or at least catch an infestation early enough to prevent major health problems.

Read also: Sleeping, Snoozing and Downright Dreaming: All About Your Cat’s Sleeping Habits

Our Expert

Dr. Janice Huntingford
Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan

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