Here's something unpleasant to think about. Hookworms. Just the mention of the name conjures up some awful and unpleasant images in your mind. And if you think that just imagining them is unpleasant, wait until you pet has them. This is something that both dogs and cats of all ages can get. But it is not just your pets that are at risk. People can get them too.
When your pet has hookworms they may show symptoms of anemia, black diarrhea, coughing, a dull coat, and a failure to gain weight. Luckily for us there are antiparasitic drugs that can be used to treat an infection as well as monthly preventative medications that can protect your pet from contracting hookworms.
So what are hookworms. These little critters are internal parasites that generally live in the small intestines of puppies, kittens, dogs, and cats. They attach themselves to the intestinal tissue and suck the blood and other nutrients from their hosts.
Infected mother dogs can pass these parasites along to their puppies during the nursing period. This is usually done when the hookworms are in larval form. These larvae migrate through the puppy’s body to the lungs, where they are coughed up and swallowed, finally arriving in the small intestine.
Most of the time an infected dog or cat will release hookworm eggs into the environment through their feces. Once these eggs are in the environment they will hatch into the next stage---the infective stage. Pets that lie down in contaminated soil they will pick up the hookworm larva in their coats. When the animal grooms itself it will ingest these larvae and become infected. They can also become infected by eating the stools of other animals.
Another way that pets can become infected is that the hookworm larvae can penetrate the pet's skin. Or when the pet eats an infected animal (usually rodents) or insect (such as cockroaches).
Hookworm infections are considered zoonotic, meaning that they can be transmitted from animals to humans. Typically, people are infected when hookworm larvae from the environment penetrate the skin. The larvae then migrate under the skin, resulting in a condition called cutaneous larva migrans. People with this condition may experience itchy skin lesions with a snakelike pattern.
Occasionally, ingested larvae will migrate to the intestine, causing abdominal pain. However, hookworms do not mature to adults in humans, so these infections usually resolve on their own.
Signs and Identification of Hookworms
The most severe form of infestation occurs in young puppies and kittens. If the infestation is bad enough the pet can die regardless of treatment.
Some of the signs of a hookworm infection may include:
- Pale gums (from anemia related to blood loss)
- Dark, tarry diarrhea
- Thin, dull coat
- Failure to gain weight
- Red, itchy skin lesions, especially on the paws
The best way of diagnosing a hookworm infection is usually achieved by identifying hookworm eggs during a fecal examination. The only problem is that many hookworm adults are intermittent in the shedding of eggs. This can make it really difficult to identify the infection in many cases.
Many veterinarians recommend routine deworming and several fecal examinations are always recommended in puppies, kittens, and pets with signs listed above.
Breeds That Are Affected
Most animals can become infected with hookworms. But it is especially a problem with dogs and cats.
Puppies and kittens are routinely treated every few weeks with an antiparasite medication that eliminates hookworms and other internal parasites for at least two sequential treatments or until they are old enough to be placed on a monthly preventive medication.
Because hookworms can cause anemia (decreased red blood cells), pets with severe infections may require fluids, iron supplements, and even blood transfusions.
The best prevention is to have your pet receive monthly preventative medicine. This will lower the risk of infection and is not an absolute prevention.
To prevent human infection, pet owners should remove and dispose of feces from the yard and sandboxes as soon as possible. Gloves and shoes should be worn at all times while gardening.