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Whipworms: all you need to know

The whipworm parasite (or Trichuris trichiura) can affect both cats and dogs. Whipworms are so named because of their characteristic whip-like shape. Like many worm parasites, the whipworm attaches to an animal’s intestines and feeds on the victim’s blood and nutrition. They can be passed to other animals through feces. Should your pet become infected with whipworm, they may show signs of digestive or intestinal problems, extreme or bloody diarrhea, and weight loss.

FACT FILE: 3 things to know

  • As with many parasitic worms, puppies are particularly vulnerable to infection, and should be de-wormed early in life to remove any infection. 
  • There are many different types of whipworm which infect dogs, cats, humans and other animals. However, infection in dogs is by far the most common. 
  • Whipworms float! If you suspect your dog may be infected, your vet may carry out a flotation test on a stool sample to see if the parasites rise to the surface. 

What do whipworms look like?

Adult whipworms are a very long thread-like parasite with one enlarged end, which is where the name comes from.

How do whipworms infect?

Whipworm is most commonly passed to a puppy from its mother, prior to birth. While puppies are by far the most at risk, older dogs and cats can also become infected in adult life. Infection in adult dogs can occur in a number of ways:

  • Contact with, or ingestion of, the feces of an infected animal 
  • Consumption of an infected animal (e.g. eating of wildlife such as mice or squirrels) 
  • Ingestion of infected water or soil in an outdoor environment  

Infection timeline

Pet inhales or consumes live whipworms or whipworm eggs, from food, milk, vegetation or soil.
If eggs were consumed, they hatch during the pet’s digestion process, releasing the larvae.
If the animal is a suitable host, the larvae migrates to the intestines.

What are the symptoms of whipworm?

An early sign of whipworm infection may be a loss of appetite or disinterest in food, caused by discomfort in the digestive system. If your dog or cat refuses to eat or shows reduced interest in their meals, this could signify a parasitic infection.

In later stages, symptoms such as inflammation of the bowel area or bloody diarrhea may occur, in which case you should seek advice from a vet urgently. A loss of interest in physical activity should also be a cause for concern. As the parasites feed they will cause blood loss and anemia, making your pet tired and lethargic.

Are whipworms dangerous?

Like most parasitic infections, the main concern of whipworms being present in your pet is the potential for blood loss. Prolonged infection can lead to a blood deficiency, and possibly anemia, which can be very serious. Bloody diarrhea may also occur.

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 whipworm 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 whipworms

Standard de-worming treatments available from your vet are usually sufficient to rid an infected pet of whipworm. If your dog or cat 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 your pet’s nutrition intake, they 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, a blood transfusion or even an oxygen supplement.

If your pet is found to have whipworms 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. Make sure that you use plastic gloves to remove any feces. This is vital because, while whipworm 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 whipworms, is the best way to make sure the infection doesn’t return later.

How to prevent whipworm

There are a number of easy steps owners can take to minimize your pet’s chances of picking up parasites. Here’s our simple 4-step plan to keep your pet whipworm-free:

  1. DE-WORM IN EARLY LIFE: Get rid of whipworms passed from a pet’s mother by arranging de-worming treatment fortnightly until the age of 6 or 8 weeks. 
  2. CLEAN UP AFTER: Regularly remove your pet’s feces from your garden and change their bedding, to ensure all residual larvae and worms are removed. 
  3. MINIMIZE CONTACT: Your pet needs some social time with other animals, but keeping this time to a minimum reduces the chances of transferal. 
  4. REGULAR CHECKS: Pets with only a mild whipworm infection may show no symptoms whatsoever, so have you pet checked out by a vet regularly. 

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 whipworms, seek professional advice from a veterinarian.

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