I talk a LOT about ticks, but did you know that internal parasites are also a very real thing? We don’t tend to see this as often. I mean that they aren’t as common, and that we don’t see them with our eyes either. Worms and internal parasites are very common in puppies, and not as common in adult animals. However, they certainly exist, and we see several cases a week. The worst part? Some of these can be spread to us.
Yes, you read that correctly. You can get worms from your pets. While I wouldn’t say this is a common problem, it happens more than you think. It isn’t necessarily something that comes up in conversation like a cold would. “Oh, I’m doing well, feeling better now that I’ve gotten rid of my tapeworms.” Despite what you might be thinking, this is actually not a recommended weight-loss protocol.
Roundworms are the most easily transmitted from pets to humans. Children are affected more often than adults. This is because they have weaker immune systems, are more likely to put their hands in places where worm eggs are present, and put their hands in their mouths more often. Roundworms shed their eggs in the feces of pets. The eggs are then present in the environment (especially sandboxes.) The eggs can attach to hands, and if they are swallowed they develop within the intestinal tract. It is also possible for your dog to transmit the eggs to you directly. This rarely happens, luckily. When it does happen, it usually involves letting your dog lick your face/mouth after it has licked its behind where the eggs were shed. I don’t know very many people who let their dog lick their mouth directly after cleaning its butt knowingly. However, it surely can happen unknowingly.
The good news is that usually, the worms die in our intestinal tracts. In children, elderly and immunosuppressed people they are more likely to thrive. If they do thrive and grow, they are easily treated with a dewormer. In extraordinarily rare cases, the larvae can migrate and cause problems (usually related to nerves or eyes.) I can tell you that in veterinary school we saw several videos of these being removed from humans. If you like that kind of thing, these videos are pretty awe-inspiring. If just the thought is turning your stomach, stay far, far away from them, because you will want to deworm yourself and every pet immediately.
The next-most-easily contracted worms are hookworms. These worms travel into people through bare feet that are in contact with the infected ground. You will notice redness and itching at the site of infection. These are not easy to get in this area of the country, but can cause more serious problems, so definitely seek medical help if you suspect hookworm infection. Hookworms are common in racing greyhounds and can be difficult to get rid of, so require more intensive follow up after diagnosis.
Tapeworms are what you see as “rice grain” looking pieces on your animal’s fur or feces. These are spread through fleas. They are extremely hard to get from your pet unless you ingest one of their fleas. I strongly advise against this. If your pet has had fleas, they should be dewormed for tapeworms. Tapeworms require a dewormer that is not present in most heartworm preventatives, so check with your veterinarian on specific instructions if you see tapeworms.
There are other types of intestinal parasites, but they are not easily transmitted to humans. It is recommended for all pets to have a fecal exam yearly to check for internal parasites. They should also have a fecal done if they develop diarrhea or the appearance of their stool changes. Puppies and kittens should have at least one fecal done. Puppies and kittens contract worms from their mother. This can be done through the placenta, during birth or through the milk. Since puppies and kittens are so irresistible to cuddle and especially prone to licking faces, they should have a fecal done when starting their vaccine series. Even if they have been previously dewormed (as many breeders and shelters do), they should be checked again in 4-6 weeks. Puppies transmitting roundworms to children is the most-common scenario.
Heartworm prevention is a good way to deworm our pets monthly. Ivermectin-based prevention kills roundworms and hookworms. Milbemycin-based prevention kills those and also whipworms. Some brands combine other de-wormers, and these individual ingredients can be discussed with your veterinarian. These are all “purge” dewormers, which means they kill adults when given. It is possible to have eggs present that then develop during the month, but these adults will be killed with the next heartworm dose. They prevent heartworms, they kill adult worms of other varieties.
With warmer weather eggs can survive in the environment longer, so picking up poop is the most important control factor. Make sure to wash your hands after handling feces (even through a bag) and teach children the importance of washing their hands after playing in areas where animal feces have been. This may sound laughable to many people, but remember that young children are very prone to putting things in their mouth without discrimination. I also recommend year-round heartworm prevention in households with young children to help prevent infection from pets.