Poop is gross. Make no mistake– we get that. But examining a stool sample for parasites on an annual basis is a great way to make sure that both your pet and your family stay as healthy as possible. Intestinal parasites can not only make pets sick, but they are easily spread from one pet to another, within the family or, if your dog goes places like the dog park, to dogs outside the family.
What is even more distressing is that some intestinal worms are also transmissable to humans. This is a bigger concern in families where there are children who might play outside a lot and maybe not always remember to wash their hands. It is also a concern in families that include people with compromised immune systems. It is such an easy risk to mitigate simply by bringing a stool sample along to your pet’s annual visit.But, you ask, what if my pet is an indoor pet? Clearly, animals who are kept primarily outdoors are at a higher risk of contracting intestinal parasites because their exposure is higher. Cats especially are frequent hunters, and their prey can carry and pass along parasites. But even indoor pets are at risk. Does your dog not ever leave the house even to relieve himself? There are many cats who truly do not ever leave the house. While their risk of infection is significantly lower, it is not zero. Rodents can get into your house and pass along parasites. Certain bugs are guilty as well– cockroaches, some types of flies, and even stink bugs (and who doesn’t get stink bugs?) It is also entirely possible for any person coming into the house to bring the shed eggs in on their shoes. Indoor pets do not live in a vacuum; parasites are everywhere.
What about dogs who are on monthly Heartworm Preventative? Both Sentinel and Heartgard work as monthly dewormers for intestinal parasites, but they are labeled to “control” (but not necessarily eliminate) the worm population and keep the pet from becoming sick from them. This monthly deworming is one of the reasons why we encourage people to give Heartworm preventative even through the winter months when mosquitos are dormant and the risk of contracting heartworms is very low. Unfortunately, no Heartworm preventative is going to offer complete protection against all intestinal parasites, and they completely miss coccidia, a common single-celled organism that can cause terrible diarrhea.
So what are the most common intestinal parasites?
Roundworms are especially common, especially in puppies and kittens. They are frequently passed from mother to babies, whether before they are born or while they are nursing. The tricky thing about roundworms is that when they infect a dog, some of the larva will migrate into the body’s tissue and lie dormant. They then can be reactivated by the hormones produced during pregnancy, so even if the mother of the litter had a clear stool sample checked before pregnancy, she can still transmit worms to her pups. Roundworms are most dangerous in very young animals who simply do not have the strength and immune system to fight them. In healthy adult pets, infections are generally not serious.
But. Roundworms can be transmitted to people. Young children may become infected by ingesting dirt contaminated with animal feces. Sandboxes are frequent favorite bathrooms for stray and outdoor cats, and children may be exposed there. Hand-washing is extremely important. Adults who work outside, in the garden for example, are also at risk of being exposed, as well as people cleaning litterboxes. Bottom line? Wash your hands!
Hookworms are another frequent offender. Hookworms can be a bit uglier than their roundworm companions. They are transmitted either by ingestion of the eggs, or by larva penetrating the feet and migrating through the body. Hook worms do more damage than roundworms, as they tear out tiny pieces of the intestinal wall for nourishment, resulting in blood loss in the pet. Dark stools, bloody diarrhea, and weight loss are the most common signs of a hookworm infestation.
And like the roundworm, hookworms can infect people. They can penetrate the bare skin of humans in the same way that they can our pets. The best prevention is a clean yard, shoes, and regular stool checks to make sure your pet is not contaminating his environment.
Whipworms seem to be becoming more common in this area recently, or at least we have been finding more of them on stool checks. The most common symptoms are poor condition, weight loss, and in severe infections, chronic bloody diarrhea. Whipworms can be very difficult to get rid of in the environment. Under favorable conditions, eggs can remain infective for up to five years in the environment. Keeping a clean yard and checking stool samples regularly are the best way to prevent environmental contamination.
Tapeworms are a little bit different. In order to acquire tape worms, your pet needs to ingest a flea, whether through grooming or hunting. Tape worms do not show up very well on stool samples– the easiest way to diagnose them is through the observation of worm segments on your pet or one of his common sleepng areas. Tape segments look like grains of white rice. If you see these, you should give us a call. Tape worms require the intermediary host of the flea. They cannot be passed pet to pet or pet to human. They are, however, a warning sign of flea infestation, so that is something you also want to stay on top of.
And last but not least is coccidia, which is not a worm, but a single-celled organism called a protozoa. Again, this is most commonly spread from ingestion of the parasite. The most common sign is, once again, diarrhea.
All of these different parasites require different types of dewormers. While there are deworming medications for pets available in some pet stores and in feed stores, they often are not very effective, and are usually only effective against one type of parasite. This isn’t helpful if that’s not what your pet has. We at White Oaks Veterinary Hospital recommend annual stool samples so that we can properly diagnose and treat any parasites that your pet has picked up. And any time your pet is being seen for diarrhea, you should definitely bring a stool sample along, as parasites are a frequent cause of intestinal issues.
We wamt to do our best to keep your pets and your family as healthy as possible, and regular stool checks are a very useful tool that we can use. Please try to remember to bring one to your pet’s next visit!