Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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The Way We Worm: Preventing Pet Parasites

Pet Column for the week of June 6, 2011

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Related site - Primary Care at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Andrea Lin
Information Specialist

The very thought of worms--especially intestinal worms--is enough to make your skin crawl. But pet owners need to know about these parasites in order to keep their animals--and their family--healthy.

According to Dr. Allan Paul, a veterinary parasitologist at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, the most common parasitic worms are the roundworms, while the most visible are the tapeworms. Both cause problems, but luckily there are many safe and effective treatments for keeping these worms at bay.

When it comes to roundworms, every dog has his day: it is estimated that all dogs will be infected by roundworms at some point in their lives. In fact, puppies can be born with roundworms if their mother is infected. Roundworm eggs are found everywhere in the environment, and they just don't die. A dog becomes infected by snarfing down 100 of these eggs or less, which is pretty easy for a dog to do given that the species tends to eat or lick just about anything they find outdoors.

Cats, on the other hand, are much less likely to eat all sorts of mysterious objects found on the ground. However, the species of roundworm that infects cats is transmitted when the cat eats a mouse or other wild prey animal. Kittens can get roundworms from their mother's milk, if the mother is infected.

Guess what other member of your household can get roundworms. Yep, it's you, or more likely your children. People may become infected with the dog roundworm, Toxocara canis, if they accidentally swallow some worm eggs. A likely scenario for that happening is when children play outside in the dirt with a puppy, then touch their face before washing their hands.

Prevent human infections by keeping children away from potentially contaminated areas and always, always washing your hands. At the same time, make sure your dog or cat is not infected, or they will be shedding eggs into your environment.

Signs that a pet is infected with roundworms include weight loss, dull hair coat, a pot-bellied appearance and just being generally unwell. Young animals with a heavy infection may even vomit up the worms. Other infected pets may show no signs at all, while still spreading the eggs into the environment.

The sure (but gross) sign that your pet has tapeworms is finding some of the segments the worms shed in your pet's poop. These segments are actually packets of eggs. Cats and dogs get tapeworms by eating infected fleas or wild animals. Luckily, people aren't likely to be eating these things and so are not at great risk of acquiring a tapeworm infection.

With the help of your veterinarian, you can keep your pet healthy and worm-free. The first step is to be informed: talk with your veterinarian about appropriate treatment plans. There are many effective, safe and affordable prescription medications. Dr. Paul recommends using monthly medication that combines a heartworm preventative with agents to address other parasitic worms, from roundworms to hookworms.

Just remember that roundworms are pretty ubiquitous, so your pet may need to be treated more than once. And don't forget that cats who hunt should also be put on a treatment plan. With a little perseverance, you can keep your pet, your household, and yourself worm-free.