Pet health: Worms, mites and other gross stuff

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La La the Chihuahua watch dog looks out the window.
By: Dr. Fiona Caldwell
For Pets Best Insurance

About two thirds of US households include at least one pet, and it’s no wonder why. Having a pet can provide so much joy, friendship and not to mention laughs!

Studies have even demonstrated that having animals can keep you healthier, by encouraging exercise, providing companionship, and even strengthening your immune system. But when can your pet give you more than just kisses? There are some instances where you can ‘catch’ illnesses from your furry family member.

Zoonosis is word that describes a disease or illness that has the ability to transfer from animals to humans. Some are very serious, like rabies, which is almost always fatal, and others are less serious, like ringworm, which is not a worm at all, but a fungus that causes an itchy rash. Generally it is easy to prevent zoonotic disease with normal common sense hygiene, adequate deworming and routine vaccination.

Internal parasites common in dogs and cats can occasionally be transmitted to humans. The Companion Animal Parasite Council suggests about a third of pets are currently infected with internal parasites, including hookworms, roundworms, and tapeworms. You can get sick from these parasites. Children are at increased risk, mostly because they are less discretionary about where they play and what goes in their mouths.

Hookworm larvae can travel through exposed skin leaving visible tracks, called Cutaneous Larva Migrans. A common way for this to occur is by walking barefoot through contaminated sand or soil. While the skin ‘rash’ can be intensely itchy, it is unlikely to cause serious disease, and is easily treated.

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Roundworms or ascarids are the most common parasite seen in cats and dogs and can cause more serious problems in people, especially children. In cats and dogs, roundworms are gastrointestinal parasites, they rarely leave the GI tract. In people the worms get confused and can migrate outside the intestines to other parts of the body. Ocular toxocariasis is an eye disease that can cause blindness. It is caused by the microscopic worm entering the eye and causing inflammation and scarring on the retina. More than 700 people each year have permanent partial loss of vision due to this disease. This can be prevented by keeping children from playing in fecal contaminated dirt or sandboxes, and teaching them that eating dirt is dangerous.

There are two types of tapeworms that dogs and cats get, Ecchinococcus and Dipylidium. The one most commonly found in the US is not associated with significant disease or illness in people, but the more rare one, Ecchinococcus can be very serious and even fatal. Cystic Ecchinococcus can cause Hydatid disease, causing cyst formation in various organs, and Aveolar Ecchinococcus (AE), although rare, can cause parasitic tumors in the liver, lungs and brain. If left untreated AE can be fatal.

Scabies is another disease that can transfer between pets and people. Scabies, or sarcoptic mange, is caused by a mite that burrows under the skin. In pets it can cause hair loss, crusts and scabs and intense itching. People have similar symptoms, but the disease is rarely serious and it is very treatable.

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Toxoplasmosis is a cat borne zoonotic disease that can be potentially serious. Toxoplasmosis is a parasite that can infect cats that hunt small rodents or birds, or come in contact with contaminated soil. Most cats exposed become carriers of the parasite without becoming ill themselves. Toxoplasmosis infects people in the United States with moderate frequency. In fact, approximately 10 to 20 % of the population has this parasite, but it doesn’t generally cause disease. There are two important exceptions.

Immunocompromised people, such as organ transplant patients, or people with HIV can become very ill from this disease because their weakened immune system is unable to control the rapidly multiplying organism. The other exception is pregnant females. There are severe repercussions for a developing baby if the mother is infected for the first time during her pregnancy. This disease is transmitted through feces, so prevention of zoonosis involves good litter box hygiene; clean often and use gloves or a long handled scooper. Women might benefit from letting someone else take over litter box duty while pregnant as an extra precaution!

While learning all this can really be gross, these diseases are VERY preventable with normal good hygiene and preventative medicine. Families with children should always deworm their pets monthly. Deworming is inexpensive and safe for pets, so even though pet insurance doesn’t cover the cost it is still an affordible way to protect your pets and your family.

If you have specific questions about these diseases, ask your family physician or veterinarian for more information. With just a little common sense, your furry family members can continue to be a source of love, instead of illness!

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