Parasites are a common thing in dogs. Not surprising when you consider that our curiosity often gets the best of us, and we can be found sniffing, licking, eating, and drinking just about everything we come across.
At any given time, adult dogs like me can have many parasites swimming around in our stomachs without even knowing it, as our immune systems are usually strong enough to keep these potentially nasty bugs at bay. However, it is extremely common for us to get parasitic worms, and whether we are puppies or adults, we sometimes need a little help getting rid of them. I know this isn’t a very glamourous thing to talk about, but pet ownership isn’t always pretty. Remember, there is a lot that we can’t do for ourselves, and we depend on you to do it for us. So, let’s get right down to business and learn more about parasites.
What are Parasitic Worms?
We can break down parasitic worms into two categories: intestinal worms and heartworms.
Intestinal parasites, like tapeworm, roundworm, whipworm, and hookworms attach themselves to the intestinal wall and feed off their host. Meaning, they feed off the dog. These worms survive on the blood and nutrients that a dog needs to live a healthy life and can cause serious issues, like anemia, weight loss, dehydration, abdominal pain, and intestinal blockage if left untreated. I know this sounds bad, but don’t worry. Intestinal worms are often very easily treated.
More worrisome but easily preventable are heartworms. Heartworms are transmitted not only by mosquitos but by infected dogs as well. They can quickly grow and multiply in a dog’s heart, leading to severe lung problems, issues in other organs, and heart failure, ultimately resulting in death if untreated. Scary stuff. Unfortunately, dogs don’t usually show significant symptoms of heartworm until it is too far along to treat. Even then, treatment can be lengthy, expensive, and can have serious side effects. Prevention is the best treatment for heartworms, and, lucky for us, prevention is pretty straightforward.
How do Dogs Get Worms?
Dogs can get worms in a few ways.
One way is the fecal-to-oral route, which is when your dog comes into contact with feces that contains parasitic eggs and, well, ingests them. Parasites can also be passed to your dog if it eats raw meat.
Mothers can pass on worms to their puppies in a few ways. Worms can travel through the placenta before the puppies are born or through breastmilk when the puppies are nursing.
Believe it or not, tapeworms are transmitted through fleas. The parasite lives inside the flea. If your dog gets hold of a bird or small rodent that is infested with fleas, they could accidentally eat one. When it gets into their GI tract, it leads to infection.
Heartworm is a little different. They’re spread through mosquitoes. Here’s how it works. When a dog has mature heartworms, they produce baby heartworms that live in the blood. A mosquito comes along and bites the infected dog, picking up a baby heartworm. The baby goes through several larval stages while inside the mosquito. When they mature enough and the mosquito bites another dog, the larva gets into the new dog’s blood and the infection begins.
One inside, the larva matures from what’s called an L3 to an L4 larva. The heartworms mature completely once they’ve been inside your dog for about 60 days. But here’s the scary part. Your vet wouldn’t even be able to tell at this point if your dog had heartworms. It takes about 120 days for them to show up on a standard test.
How to Tell If Your Dog has Worms
There are a few types of worms that your dog might get, and each one presents a little differently.
If your dog has whipworms, it may lose weight and have bloody or mucousy stools. Hookworms might cause weakness and lethargy, as well as bloody diarrhea and anemia.
Roundworms are one of the most obvious because you can see with the naked eye. They look a little like spaghetti, and you might see them in your dog’s stool, or it might cough some up. Roundworms cause lethargy, weight loss, and diarrhea. Your pup may look potbellied, and its coat may look dull.
Heartworm is a little different. As I mentioned, it takes months for heartworms to mature inside your dog, and the symptoms take just as long to appear.
As the worms start multiplying, they interfere with your dog’s ability to breathe, and you may notice a soft, dry cough, especially after exercise. Your dog may even faint, and eventually, this will progress to rapid difficult breathing. They will become lethargic and not want to do anything physical, even go for a short walk. You may notice your dog starts to look barrel-chested, and their ribs protrude slightly. They may also display signs of an allergic reaction. Eventually, if untreated, the mature heartworms will block the blood flow, and the dog will eventually go into shock and die.
I know that all sounds very scary, and it’s not something you want to think about. But it’s really important to know what to look for and how important it is to seek treatment if you suspect something is wrong.
Now, on to the good news. Some worms are very easy to treat, and those that aren’t, like heartworm, can be prevented.
How to Treat or Prevent Worms in Dogs
The first worming process should begin at the vet’s office a couple of weeks before the puppy is weaned. Because this first treatment kills only the worms and not the eggs left behind by those worms, puppies must receive a second treatment two weeks after the first to kill any more worms that have developed. This process will often continue for up to eight weeks to ensure the developing worms have been taken care of.
Treatment and prevention of the worms usually continue throughout adulthood in the form of a tablet once every three months. Even though worming tablets mimic a dog treat, it isn’t unheard of that dogs do not like the taste, and being the smart ones that we are, we can sometimes hide them in our cheeks until we find the right time to get rid of them without our humans knowing. While it’s our job as dogs to make sure we take our medicine like a good boy or girl, our humans should always double-check to see if we have swallowed it so that it works the way it is intended to. A little bit of peanut butter or a slice of cheese can go a long way towards making sure we’ve taken the tablet.
Heartworm is easily preventable, and there are options in addition to tablets. You can talk to your vet if you want more information. Heartworm is also treatable, but it’s very intense and quite expensive. Talk to your vet to see what your options are after your dog tests positive.
How Long Do Worming Tablets Take to Work
Most worming tablets get to work quickly and can start ridding your puppy of worms within the first four to six hours. Just because the tablets start to work quickly does not, however, mean that they rid your pup of worms all at once. Instead, it can be a few days to a couple of weeks before the worms are completely gone.
How to Tell if the Worming Tablet Has Worked
Even after the worming process, there may not be signs of the worms in the stool, and some worms are so small that they may not be noticeable at all. Do not get alarmed if there are worms in the stool as it is an indication that the tablets are doing what they need to do. It is also not unheard of for dogs to throw the worms up, which occurs in dogs with chronic worm issues. You must contact your vet to ensure that the worms have been exterminated.
The easiest way to tell whether the tablets are working is by the overall health of your pup. If the worms are gone, then so will be the symptoms that indicate that the worms were there. Your pup will be more energetic and just all around feeling better.
Side Effects of Worming Tablets
As with any medication, human and dog medication alike, worming tablets can have some side effects. For the most part, worming tablets designed to rid your dog of intestinal worms have very minor, short-lived side effects, like upset stomach, loss of appetite, or vomiting. As I mentioned, these side effects are usually very short-lived. If they continue for a long period, it may indicate that the pup has a more serious condition. There is also a possibility that we can have an allergic reaction to the tablets. If there is any indication of hives, difficulty breathing, or swelling in the mouth, throat, or face, contact your vet immediately.
Dogs being treated for heartworm disease can be susceptible to developing pulmonary thromboembolism, a serious and potentially deadly condition where the worms killed by the worming tablet can cause a blood clot, which is another reason why it’s important to see your veterinarian for preventative tablets.
What to Expect After Worming
Because the worming tablets kill the adult worms living inside your dog’s intestines, it is not uncommon to see them dispelling worms either in their feces or through vomiting, although vomiting worms are a lot less common. Not only can they come out in the feces, but they can also show themselves by hanging from the anus when the dog is not doing his or her business. As alarming as this may look, it is perfectly normal. Another alarming thing to see is live worms in the feces. Again this is normal and is an indication that the worms are still in the process of dying.
Other Issues to be Aware of
We’ve already discussed the issues that parasitic worms can cause for us like dogs, but did you know that it is also possible for us to pass some of those worms onto our humans? It’s scary enough thinking of having worms; it’s just as scary thinking that we can pass them on to the ones we love the most. The younger ones are more susceptible to this than the older ones; after all, they are just as curious as us and have the same symptoms that we as dogs would get. Good hygiene and always washing your hands after you play with us can be very, very important.
Other Ways to Prevent Worms
Aside from worming tablets, the best way to prevent worms from infecting us, and potentially infecting our humans, is by being diligent and having our humans do their best at controlling the things that cause worms.
- Control fleas and mosquitos by removing any standing water outside.
- Clear the yard every week to not only avoid insects and fleas but to also remove the dog poop that can attract parasites.
- Avoid feeding us raw meat.
- Good hand hygiene, especially after handling out waste.
- Treating us with proper flea medication to avoid any possibility of us getting fleas and in turn, contracting worms.
- Get a prescribed heartworm medication from our vet. The right heartworm medication is incredibly effective in preventing the parasite.
- Regular worm checks at the vet, at least once every six months.