Parasites and Your Pets

The Center for Disease Control estimates 50 million children and as many as 65% of adults in the United States have some form of parasite. These parasites can cause fever, coughing, asthma, vomiting, blindness, and even mental retardation in children. Parasites in humans are most often acquired through the ingestion of uncooked meat, contact with fecal material, gardening without gloves, walking barefoot in sand or dirt, and from our beloved dogs and cats. Most cases of human parasite infections can be prevented by practicing good personal hygiene, thoroughly cooking your meat, and routinely treating your pets for parasites.

The growing pet population has no doubt contributed to the rising number of cases of human parasite infections. Recent studies have revealed as many as 40% of adult dogs and cats having parasites and that number doubles for puppies and kittens. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has listed the presence of pets in a household as the principal risk factor for humans acquiring disease.

The normal activity and behaviors of our pets predisposes them to parasitic infections. Every time your dog digs in the backyard or smells another animal's fecal waste he is potentially becoming infected with a parasite. Whenever your cat catches a bird or walks around your backyard they are potentially becoming infected as well. The dog park is also a great place for dogs to pick up parasites and bring them home to your family. While our furry friends can carry and transmit many parasites, for the sake of this paper we will discuss the two most common in dogs and cats and briefly discuss their treatment.

Hookworms are intestinal parasites that are found all over the world. In 2002, the estimated number of persons infected with hookworms was 1.3 billion. Hookworms have complex life cycles that result in an egg being released into the environment when an animal defecates. This egg develops into larvae that live in the soil and a human can become infected by simply walking on the larvae, touching it while gardening, or getting larvae-infected soil in the mouth. The larvae are notorious for penetrating the skin of persons walking barefoot and migrating through the skin of the feet. Migrating worms cause intensely painful skin infections as the worms make their way into the intestinal tract. When the larvae are accidentally ingested, they attach themselves to the intestines and begin to grow and reproduce. A female adult worm can produce thousands of eggs per day and will consume the blood of its host causing blood loss, anemia, protein deficiency, severe abdominal pain, and will stunt the growth of children.

Dogs and cats can easily acquire this parasite when digging, eating soil and grass in the backyard, and especially at the dog park. After coming in contact with the hookworm a dog or cat may start releasing eggs into your home in as little as 5 days time and you could become infected by simply walking around your home barefoot. Puppies and kittens are especially susceptible to this parasite because pregnant dogs and cats transfer parasites to their offspring during pregnancy and in milk while nursing.

Roundworms are intestinal parasites that infect more than 15% of the U.S. population. While most infections occur in children and adults under 30, everyone is potentially at risk. Humans are most likely to contract this disease from infected soil coming into contact with the fingers or mouth. This commonly occurs when children are playing in the dirt or when adults are gardening. After an egg is ingested, they hatch and begin to travel to the intestines, lungs, liver, eyes, and even the brain. These infections can cause permanent organ, visual, and brain damage.

Dogs and cats typically become infected with roundworms in one of four ways; a pregnant mother will typically infect her unborn offspring, nursing pups will acquire infection through the mother's milk, eating dirt or grass infected with eggs, and by consuming an infected rodent or small animal. Once infected, the worms may start producing eggs in as little as 2 weeks and a single female worm can produce more than 100,000 eggs per day. This massive release of eggs can contaminate the dog park, beaches, backyard, and your home very quickly. Under the right conditions eggs may remain viable for years in the soil, grass, and even your carpet.

Most people are unaware their pets may harbor parasites that are capable of infecting themselves and their families. Fortunately, the treatment for parasites in dogs and cats is very easy, inexpensive, and far outweighs the risk of infection, especially when there are children in the home. Both the CDC and the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC), a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing the spread of parasites among animals and humans, recommend treating all dogs and cats for parasites at 2,4,6,8, and 12 weeks of age. It is then recommended for all dogs and cats to begin monthly parasite or heartworm preventative medications. The council also recommends all pregnant animals be treated during and after their pregnancy to prevent the spread to unborn and nursing animals.

Other measures designed to prevent the spread of parasites include the prompt removal of feces and prevention of defecation in places where children play or dig. Never walk barefoot in areas known to be infected or where animals may defecate. Always wash your hands after gardening and never eat uncooked meat or vegetables without washing them first. By following these easy steps and treating your pets with the appropriate parasite medications it is very easy to prevent both human and animal infections. Ask your veterinarian about starting your pet on a monthly parasite preventative and remember it is far more effective to prevent diseases than to treat them.

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