Taking Pet Parasites Seriously
Veterinarians who educate clients on parasites will help protect pets and people from serious health issues.
Parasites are a year-round problem for pets, but when temperatures heat up, they increase in even greater abundance. Research has shown that pet owners often don’t understand the potential dangers posed by several common parasites, not only to their animals but their own health. Veterinarians who take the time to educate their clients can narrow this knowledge gap and help protect the public and their pets from serious health issues.
Heartworm is one of the most insidious parasites affecting dogs but also one of the easiest to prevent. Unfortunately, the prevalence of heartworm continues to go up, so taking the time to clearly explain the threat of heartworms and why pet owners should take it seriously is critical to stop this increase. Data shows that the number of pets receiving heartworm prevention is less than 30%, with owners giving an estimated eight monthly doses, so this lack of compliance is a significant concern.
Since heartworm preventives are available by prescription only, the millions of dogs who receive little or no veterinary care are those most likely to be infected and propagating the disease. Wild coyotes or foxes may also serve as a reservoir. A powerful message is that with a single heartworm-positive dog in a neighborhood, over 70% of the mosquitoes in that dog’s immediate vicinity have been shown to carry heartworm larvae.
The American Heartworm Society’s 2022 testing data showed the highest density of heartworm cases in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. States with historically low rates, including Connecticut, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Oregon and Washington, saw unexpected increases, and urban areas like Bismarck, North Dakota; Boise, Idaho; Seattle, Washington; and Tucson, Arizona, had significantly higher rates. Discussing educational resources and updated prevention protocols with your customers in these hotbed areas provides a valuable service.
Today, there are over 20 preventive products for dogs in oral, topical, and injectable form, including combination products for fleas, ticks, mites, and intestinal parasites. Clients can have monthly, semiannual, or yearly administration, and generic products make them even more affordable. In the past, prevention was considered a “warm weather” issue, but today, year-round protection is necessary. With so many effective treatments, be ready to discuss which will work best for your clinics based on their region and demographics.
Ticks and the pathogens they carry constitute a significant threat to pets and people, so educating clients on those risks is the key to prevention. Tick-borne diseases in dogs include Lyme borreliosis, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, tularemia, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, hepatozoonosis, and tick paralysis. A single tick can transmit multiple infectious agents. Many of these can be transmitted to humans. Dogs often act as “sentinels” for the presence of tick-borne disease in a region.
Pet owners may be unaware of the rapid increase in tick distribution and numbers over the past several years and have no knowledge of regional risk where they may be traveling with their pets. Tick prevention should be discussed at every health check, and regular reminders can inform pet owners about risks and prevention recommendations. An excellent resource is the Companion Animal Parasite Council’s (CAPC) pathogen prevalence maps at capcvet.org. You can use this information to recommend the tests and preventives best suited for your customers and ensure they have products on hand. Clinics can text a link to pet owners and use it in social media posts for their client education.
Intestinal parasites can be a severe problem in pets, particularly in young animals. The most prevalent types include hookworms, roundworms, tapeworms, whipworms, giardia, and coccidia. Pets often don’t show symptoms until the infestation has become severe, so preventive care and regular fecal exams are necessary to catch the infestation in its early stages. The fact that many intestinal parasites can be transmitted to humans makes them a public health concern.
Hookworms are one of the most common parasites found in companion animals. Their hooklike mouths latch onto the intestines, where they feed on tissue fluids and blood. Infected pets can experience bloody diarrhea, dramatic weight loss, anemia, lethargy, and other issues. Alarmingly, according to recent research from the University of Georgia, hookworms are developing resistance to all three FDA-approved drugs used to kill them.
A team from the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine found that the dogs they studied still had high infection levels with hookworms even after they were treated for them. They discovered that nearly all their fecal samples tested positive for a mutation that enables hookworms to survive treatment with benzimidazoles, a broad-spectrum dewormer used in animals and humans. Their study confirmed the first widespread multiple-drug resistance in a dog parasite ever reported.
One breeding ground for a potential drug-resistant hookworm outbreak is where many dog owners take their pets for exercise – dog parks. I cringed when I read a complaint on social media the other day about all the dog feces in my hometown dog park. Thanks in part to irresponsible owners, it’s no surprise that according to a DOGPARCS study, the prevalence of hookworms in dogs visiting dog parks is almost 70%! Veterinarians should consider passing on the advice of Dr. Ray Kaplan, one of the UGA study’s authors: “If your dog picks up these resistant hookworms, it’s not as easy as just treating them with medication anymore. Until new types of drugs are available, taking your dog to a dog park has to be considered a risky activity.”
If that doesn’t get their attention, dog hookworms can infect humans, and dogs don’t have to ingest the worms to become infected. Hookworm larvae live in the soil and can burrow through the dog’s skin and paws, and females can pass the parasite to nursing puppies through their milk. Regularly testing dogs for hookworms is more important than ever. Veterinarians and owners can no longer assume deworming products are ridding dogs of hookworms, so fecal testing should become part of every wellness exam.
With heartworm on the rise, the spread of vector-borne diseases in both humans and animals and drug resistance discovered in a common parasite, veterinarians have a crucial role in protecting the health of clients and their pets. You become a valued partner by providing information to increase education and compliance and by recommending the best products to detect, prevent and treat these diseases.
Image credit: istockphoto.com/IgorChus