In my office, one of the topics I deal with most is intestinal parasites. I would say that this is one of the top killers of our pets, especially puppies and kittens. Everyone has heard of roundworms, hookworms, and tapeworms, but North Georgia is also home to three other common intestinal parasites coccidia, whipworms, and giardia. Symptoms of these parasites can be quite similar including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, and anemia. Most of these parasites are spread via contact with the same ground that has been previously defecated on, but there are some exceptions. Let’s go over each parasite individually.
The most common parasite in our area is roundworms. Roundworms affect both dogs and cats. This is usually a parasite that affects the young, sick, and animals under stress. It is easily found in the environment pretty much anywhere. It is spread to the environment via fecal matter and can resist the hot sun and freezing temperatures for well over a year. Many people say that these worms look like spaghetti in our pet’s stools. It is the only parasite that can infect puppies and kittens before birth through the placenta. Generally, this is a benign parasite that causes most of its damage by blocking up the intestinal tract leading to vomiting.
Hookworms also affect both cats and dogs. These worms are very similar to roundworms but they attach to the intestinal wall and suck blood from their hosts. This worm is even longer lived in the environment in that it can survive for over three years in the ground. This parasite is generally too small to see in the feces. Death can easily occur as the infestation worsens. Hookworms and Roundworms are also zoonotic, which means that humans can be infested by these two parasites. Unfortunately, they tend to affect children most often. The parasite, if in large enough numbers, can enter our bodies via the skin; usually the hands and bare feet are easy entry points. These parasites tend to cause skin lesions where they enter and can also affect our organs, and have also been found in children’s eyes causing blindness.
Whipworms are rare throughout the country but are unfortunately common in North Georgia. This parasite causes the most deaths among adult animals that I see. Whipworms also are spread via fecal matter and can live for over five years in the ground. This parasite also attaches to the intestinal lining and sucks blood. Most animals I see have uncontrollable diarrhea and are very anemic. If the infection is not controlled, permanent scarring can occur in the intestinal lining causing permanent diarrhea. Whipworms only affect dogs.
Tapeworms are also common in this area. This parasite can cause vomiting and diarrhea but rarely results in death. Many people have seen this parasite; it looks like pieces of rice around dogs’ and cats’ rectums. Tapeworms are spread via fleas and rodents to our pets. Tapeworms need two hosts to survive. The “pieces of rice” are actually egg packets that cause a primary infestation in fleas and rodents. If the egg packets are eaten again by our pets they will not get infected. Using flea products that kill or repel fleas from our pets easily controls tapeworms.
Coccidia is a parasite that can be hard to properly diagnose. This parasite tends to only affect young animals and can be hard to find even on a microscope. It can be mistaken for parvo because it can also cause vomiting and bloody diarrhea. We see this parasite coming from puppies and kittens that were bought at a pet store, or from breeders with lots of litters.
Giardia is a parasite that is found in stagnant water. It affects both cats and dogs and can also affect humans. It tends to cause very watery diarrhea, in both the young and adults. This parasite is the reason that people say don’t drink the water south of the border!
These parasites are very different and cause different problems, but there are a few things you can do to keep your pet’s parasite free. Parasites such as roundworms, hookworms and whipworm are easily controlled via oral medications. These medications can be very expensive, and due to the fact that your pets can keep re-infecting over a five-year period, I find them to not be a good option due to expense. Probably the best long-term option for these parasites is heartworm preventatives because they are wormed monthly. Parasites tend to be in high concentrations in areas where animals are kept pent up. Fenced in pets and animals on chains should have their feces removed daily to keep the parasite levels low. As mentioned earlier, keeping flea products on your pet easily controls tapeworms. And finally, keeping your animal clean and out of dirty environments greatly decreases the risk for both coccidia and giardia. Most veterinarians recommend yearly fecals, and after that test is complete your veterinarian can recommend any number of preventatives. Finally, it is important to remember that most over the counter wormers only kill roundworms. Products for the other parasites can only be obtained from your veterinarian.