Hookworms: all you need to know
What are hookworms?
Zoonotic hookworms are parasitic worms that live in the small intestine of an infected pet, and ‒ like some other parasites ‒ can be passed on to other animals (or even humans) in feces or through infant feeding.
Unlike some other parasitic worms, the hatched larvae of surviving hookworms can mature into a form which can penetrate the skin of humans. This means that, if an infected dog or cat is out enjoying the garden, the risk can extend to children who play in the grass or adults walking barefoot in the garden during summer months.
Hookworms are more common in dogs than cats.
FACT FILE: 3 things to know
- Hookworms can be fatal in certain circumstances, posing a particular risk to puppies and other young pets.
- Hookworm bites leave lasting scars which can continue to bleed, causing blood loss and eventually anemia.
- Unlike roundworms and other parasitic worms, the hookworm is too small to be seen with the naked eye.
How does a pet get hookworms?
There are two ways in which your dog or cat can pick up hookworms:
- Contact of the skin with infected soil, water or other contaminated areas.
- Consumption of infected animals or tissues, or drinking contaminated water.
As with the roundworm and other parasitic pests, your dog or cat could catch hookworm through close or intimate contact with other animals, eating wildlife, or just by sniffing around in grass and soil that contains fecal residue from an infected animal. Contaminated water such as ponds or lakes can also transfer hookworms to your dog. The hookworm is particularly adept at penetrating an animal’s skin, meaning that even external contact can be sufficient to cause an infection.
In puppies, hookworm is most commonly acquired through feeding on the mother’s milk. For this reason, it is especially important to minimize the risk of hookworm in female animals who are pregnant or likely to become pregnant, since many parasitic infections can be passed to a mother’s young in feeding.
Infection timeline - what happens?
Pet inhales or consumes live hookworms or hookworm eggs, from food, milk, vegetation or soil.
If eggs were consumed, they hatch during the digestion process, releasing the larvae.
If the animal is a suitable host, the larvae migrates to the lungs. From here, it may be coughed up.
If coughed up and swallowed, the worm will remain in the intestine, feeding on the pet’s intake.
What are symptoms of hookworms?
Like many other parasites in pets, a key symptom of hookworms which can be used to identify the condition early on is a loss of appetite. If your pet refuses to eat, or leaves part of a portion which they would normally finish, this could be a sign that the parasite exists in your pet. Another clue to look out for is a paleness in the linings of the nostrils, lips or ears, as well as diarrhea or constipation, which is caused by disruption of the digestive system. The animal’s stool may also become dark and tarry in color.
If a hookworm infection reaches the lungs of your pet, they may show more advanced symptoms including coughing and wheezing. Such signals of respiratory problems indicate that the condition is at a later stage, so it is vital to contact a vet and have your pet examined if this is the case.
Are hookworms dangerous?
One of the main dangers of a hookworm infection ‒ as with most parasitic infections ‒ is the potential for anemia. With parasites feeding on your pet’s blood, they are liable to suffer a blood deficiency, which can potentially be very serious.
Aside from the direct complications of blood loss, infected pets are also at risk of nutritional deficiencies. A drop in the body’s levels of iron and protein can lead to stunted growth, reduced or slowed mental development, and even a condition called ascites. The development of ascites, caused by a severe lack of protein, can result in a dangerous or even life-threatening fluid build-up in the abdomen.
At later stages of infection, a hookworm infection can cause sudden and unexpected death. It is therefore vital to seek veterinary advice if you spot any symptoms of infection.
How to treat hookworms?
A hookworm infection can usually be treated using standard de-worming treatments available from your vet. If your pet is infected, speak to your vet as soon as possible about the best way forward. Depending on the progress of the infection and the detrimental effects on nutrition intake, your pet may also require supplements for deficiencies of vital nutrients such as iron or protein. In severe cases, where a pet has been heavily starved of nutrients, hospitalization may be necessary for fluid therapy, blood transfusion or oxygen supplement.
If your pet is found to have hookworms and is treated, it is also important to ensure the infection is not picked up again. Be sure to clean out any unsanitary living areas, and keep the pet away from areas of the garden or neighborhood where they are likely to have contracted the infection in the first place. Using plastic gloves, make sure that you also remove any remaining feces. This is vital because, while hookworm treatments will kill off adult worms, the larvae may survive and grow to cause further issues. Placing your pet on a monthly heartworm treatment which also protects against hookworms is the best way to make sure the infection doesn’t return later.
How to prevent hookworms?
There are a number of easy steps owners can take to minimize the chances of picking up parasites. Here’s our simple 4-step plan to keep your pet hookworm-free:
- DE-WORM IN EARLY LIFE: Get rid of hookworms passed from their mother by arranging de-worming treatment fortnightly until the age of 6 or 8 weeks.
- THINK HYGIENE: Keep your pet’s living areas clean, removing and disposing of any feces in a sanitary way to prevent transmission.
- LESS BUTT-SNIFFING: They love to do it, but sniffing around the nasty bits of a fellow canine or feline could see your pet inhaling dangerous hookworm larvae.
- NO WILD SNACKS! Try to discourage your pet from catching and eating wild animals, such as squirrels or rodents, which may be carrying hookworms.
This article is intended as an informative guide for pet owners, but is not a replacement for veterinary care. If you believe your pet may be infected with hookworms, seek professional advice from a veterinarian.
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