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Gastrointestinal parasites, which can make you and your pets sick, are an all too common health issue with our pets. Whenever you notice or suspect that your dog or cat is infested with parasites you need to take immediate action as these types of parasites can kill your pet.

"But my pet is not at risk. I keep his living area very clean."

That is something that I have heard countless number of times and I am pretty sure that veterinarians all over the world have heard the same thing.

Even the cleanest, best cared-for pets are susceptible to these bugs, which take up residence in the stomach or intestines. Some of these parasites can be spread from mother to puppy or kitten or by fleas or rodents or through the feces. Good hygiene, regular visits to the veterinarian, preventive medicines and deworming treatments can keep your pets free of these pesky intruders. Luckily, if your pet is infected, many effective treatment options are available. Your vet can guide you on what is the best strategy for your pets.

The Major Parasite Culprits

Some gastrointestinal parasites (GI parasites) are big enough to be seen with the naked eye. Most, however, require microscopic examination to be diagnosed. The most common gastrointestinal parasites include:

  • Roundworms: Visible to the naked eye, roundworms resemble small pieces of spaghetti. In people, roundworms can lead to larva migrans, an illness caused by migration of young worms through the nervous system, liver, lungs, and other organs. They can even travel to the eye and cause blindness.
  • Hookworms: These worms attach to the intestinal wall and suck blood and other nutrients from their hosts, leading to severe blood loss and diarrhea in infected pets. And larvae found in the environment can penetrate the skin and cause illness in a new host. When humans are infected, the condition is called cutaneous larva migrans. The tell-tale symptom? Itchy skin lesions with a snakelike pattern.
  • Tapeworms: These are long, flat worms made up of numerous segments containing tapeworm eggs. For one species of tapeworm, the immature stage of the tapeworm lives inside of a flea. When your dog or cat grooms a flea off of its hair, it eats the flea—and the tapeworm, which then hatches inside your pet and continues its life cycle. You can become infected if you inadvertently eat tapeworm eggs or infected fleas.
  • Giardia: Giardia organisms are single-celled parasites that live in the intestines, and can be spread through fecal-contaminated water, food, or soil.
  • Whipworms: Whipworms live in the large intestines of dogs and shed eggs into the environment. When this occurs, the contamination can persist for years. Female whipworms can produce more than 2,000 eggs a day.
  • Coccidia: Coccidia are microscopic GI parasites. They can cause severe diarrhea in some infected pets.

How Can Gastrointestinal Parasites Make Your Pet Sick?

Most Gastrointestinal Parasites shed their eggs in the host's feces. Other pets can then be exposed to infection by direct contact with the feces or through contaminated soil, water, or plants.

Some of these parasites have been known to remain in the environment for months or even years in a dormant state. Once a new host has been found they then become active and go through a process of rapid multiplication.

Other types of parasites infect rodents and other small animals. When a dog or cat eats these animals, it becomes infected.

There are also some Gastrointestinal Parasites that can infect puppies and kittens when they nurse from their infected mothers, and puppies can sometimes become infected during fetal development.

How Can You Know If Your Pet Has Been Infected

Determining a parasitic infestation of your pet can be tricky. But if your pet is showing signs of diarrhea, vomiting or weight loss, he may have been infected. In this situation, a trip to your veterinarian is a good idea.

How Your Veterinarian Will Help

Most of the time the veterinarian will perform a fecal test to determine the presence of Gastrointestinal Parasites. Some veterinarians recommend deworming (administering medication to treat and control infections) even if the fecal test doesn’t confirm the existence of bugs. In fact, because puppies and kittens are commonly infected with GI parasites, many veterinarians routinely deworm them several times. Deworming medications are safe when used properly and come in a variety of formulations, including pills, chewable tablets, liquid medications and topical products that are applied to the skin between the shoulder blades.

Treatment Options

There is no one fix-all, cure-all method when it comes to treating and preventing Gastrointestinal Parasites. If you give your pet monthly heartworm preventative medications is best to choose one that also controls other parasitic bugs. Ask your veterinarian as he can tell which one is recommended.

What Can the Pet Owner Do?

There are many things that you can do to protect your pet and family. Here are just a few that come to mind:

  • Use a monthly heartworm preventive that also targets GI parasites. Pick up your dog’s feces promptly to reduce the risk of environmental contamination. Protect hands while cleaning up the feces and wash hands afterwards.
  • Clean your cat’s litterbox frequently to reduce the risk of reinfection, or, if you have other cats in the house, to prevent spreading the parasites. Also smart: Covering sandboxes when not in use to discourage cats from depositing feces there.
  • Encourage children to wash their hands after playing outside and before eating.
  • Schedule regular checkups with your veterinarian, and bring a stool sample from your pet for parasite testing.
  • Any new pet entering the home should be tested for GI parasites as soon as possible and treated if parasites are found.
  • If possible, prevent your pet from killing and eating rodents and other small animals.
  • Use effective flea control to reduce the risk of tapeworms. Thoroughly wash all fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • Do not allow your children to put dirt in or around their mouths.
  • Make sure your animals always have safe, clean drinking water.
  • Do not allow your pets to drink where other animals may have left feces such as water that is downstream from a farm.
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