Heathside Veterinary Surgery Blog

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How Parasite Savvy are You?

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By now the weather should be getting warmer though I am not wholly convinced it ever will! With June here I feel that a brief chat about parasitic control is a must. It is important to be aware of these unpleasant little blighters and why the veterinary profession take them so seriously... And why you should treat them seriously too.

Fleas and worms...not a pleasant topic of conversation; but an essential one if you own a companion animal. When we comit to owning a cat or dog with it comes many obligations and one of these is to ensure that your pet is regularly treated against both internal and external parasites.

What are these you may ask?

Firstly what is a parasite?

By definition a parasite is "...an organism which lives in or on another organism and benefits by getting nutrition from the host whilst offering no benefit in return." In short they take and do not give...but they can leave behind ugly legacies.

So how are parasites detrimental to our pets health? Let us take a look at the 'Flea', small brown insect that infest the skin and coat of your cat or dog. In order to survive they live off the blood of your pet and can consume 15 times their body weight in blood daily.  One on its own pah...but imagine hundreds. Imagine the amount of life giving blood these pests are draining out of the unfortunate infested cat or dog. Flea infestations in young, elderly or sick pets can be catastrophic! 

Most skin conditions are caused by these irritating pests and it doesn't stop there... By ingesting fleas cats and dogs are infecting themselves with tapeworm eggs as fleas are the carriers of these internal parasites! Although tapeworms rarely cause serious health problems in the healthy cat and dog they can cause serious problems in humans especially children.

It is this transfer to humans that we ultimately want to prevent. If we can remove both the flea and tapeworm at source and be hygenic then we are on our way to safeguarding ourselves and our children; but like a lot of things it is cyclical. If we can break the cycle we start to prevent reinfection. If we prevent reinfection the cycle starts to fall apart and cannot complete. If fleas are not present on the host they cannot be eaten during self grooming and so reinfection does not occur! PHEW!!! Are you still with me?

Have you ever wondered why street cats and dogs abroad are generally lethargic? Have you wondered why their coats are dull, dry and brittle? Yes their diets aren't the best but what they are eating is going on supporting their parasites (see definition of parasite above). The fleas are draining their blood (and these poor creatures are infested beyond belief) and the adult tapeworm that is present in the small intestine is absorbing any nutrients that the dog or cat may have eaten before being absorbed by their own gut!  

This is why flea and worm treatments work hand in hand and why it is so important to  regularly use veterinary grade treatments. Imagine if everyone treated their cats and dogs for fleas and tapeworms...these parasites would become extinct! IF ONLY...!

We can minimise parasite numbers by treating our furry companions regularly and picking up any mess that they deposit and disposing of responsibly. Washing hands after dog walking and after dog and cat grooming minimises contamination too.

It doesn't stop there. Fleas and tapeworms are just two parasites that we treat our pets for. You may have heard of Toxocara canis, Toxascaris Leonina and Toxocara cati; these roundworm found in dogs, cats and foxes. The eggs of the round worm are found in the soil, in fact they are found anywhere that a cat, dog or fox uses for the toilet. Like your back garden, the park, your childs sandpit!

Once again in the healthy adult pet roundworms are not that significant, it is in the young furbabies that problems arise AND  our children are at risk too. Puppies and kitties if infested will develope a pot-bellied appearance due to worms blocking the digestive system; pneumonia may result if left untreated. 

Animals can be infected with roundworms by eating tainted meat or during the process of grooming. Eggs are ingested where upon (simplistically) they hatch into larvae and then into adults in the intestine. Here the adults lay eggs whch are expelled with the faeces when the dog, cat or fox poops;  it takes two to three weeks for these eggs to develope into the third stage larvae (still within the egg coating) which is when the round worm is at its most infective. These eggs survive for long periods of time in the soil long after the faeces has degraded and disappeared. 

It is at this stage that reinfection can start its cycle; children playing in infected soil and putting hands to mouth; dogs walking through infected areas and picking up eggs on feet and grooming later.

However another mode of transfer is direct from the mother to the puppy or kitten via the placenta during gestation or via the mothers milk during feeding.

What does it do to infected humans?  The vulnerable child? The larvae migrate to the internal organs and affect the muscles, nervous system and the eyes. Due to modern hygiene and extensive government education back in the 90's roundworm infection has been greatly reduced.

What does the roundworm cycle teach us? Once again the importance of regular worming with a veterinary grade wormer, picking up faeces to contain contamination (and dispose of responsibly) and of course washing hands after being outside.

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These are just a few of the parasites that affect our pets in the UK and I do feel that I have a few more to add. Lungworm only affects dogs and pose no risk to cats. A dog that regularly forages and eats things like slugs and snails are at risk of contracting Lungworms. This parasite is relatively new to this country and is believed to be linked to climatic changes.

As its name suggests this parasite affects the respiratory system. They gradually damage the lung tissue but symptoms can range hugely from a simple cough to weight loss, vomiting, diarrhoea, anaemia. Again the life cycle can be broken if the dog is wormed regularly with a veterinary strength wormer and poo picked up every time your dog goes to the loo.

Fortunately for us Lungworm do not pose a risk however it can be fatal for our dogs. Pets can make a full recovery but be sure that they are treated sooner rather than later; secondary infections are harder to treat and more costly.

There are many more parasites and for those of us who take our animals abroad there are a whole host just waiting to hitch a lift and get a free ride at your pets expense. For example Heartworm will seek out both cats and dogs and is fatal in the unprotected pet; Hookworm, Whipworm and Eyeworm are other worms to be aware of abroad. Anyone taking their pet abroad would do well to do their research and talk to their veterinary surgeon to ensure adequate protection.

Even if your pet appears to be contented and you can see no evidence of worms in their poos it does not mean that they do not have any. It is all too easy to be complacent and not treat, however I urge you consider the cost of worming your cats and dogs and using flea-treatments to erradicate those pesky pests against the costs of treating let us say pneumonia? Let us all stay safe and parasite free.

In summing up this blog on parasites we all need to worm our pets; de-flea regularly; pick up dog and cat faeces; wash hands after being in the garden or grooming or stroking our pets; avoid dog and cat licks to the face.

And whilst I think about it... I must go and put a lid on that sandpit! 

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