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Don’t let bugs bug your pet!

Humans are, fortunately for us, subject to relatively few common parasites. The same cannot, however, be said about our pets! Dogs and cats are sadly plagued by pesky parasites, inside and out. In this blog, we’ll briefly introduce a few of them, and look at how you can keep your pets safe.


There are three main families of worms that infest our beloved cats and dogs. The first are the roundworms. As their name suggests, these are long, thin and round-bodied, and look not dissimilar to garden earthworms. The adults live inside the gut, eating the animal’s food, and laying eggs which pass out in the faeces. In small numbers, the symptoms are usually very mild, but the more worms there are, the worse they get! Signs of a roundworm infestation may include weight loss, vomiting, or diarrhoea. Dogs or cats may be infected by eating the eggs on the ground, or eating another animal that is carrying the worms.


Some of these worms, unfortunately, can spread to humans - if we eat their eggs (especially children whose hand-washing is perhaps not quite as good as it could be!) the worms hatch out in our intestine, and the baby larvae then go crawling through our blood vessels and internal organs. This visceral larval migrans can cause organ damage, especially of the liver and brain; the worms may also end up inside the eyeball (ocular larval migrans). These worms are also the ones that can pass from a mother to her puppies or kittens in the milk or (in dogs) even directly into their bodies while they’re still in the womb.

The second important family are the tapeworms. As their name suggests, they are long and thin, and unlike roundworms need an intermediate host to spread - some other animal that they can hide away in until they are swallowed by a dog or cat. The most common is the Dog Tapeworm (Dipylidium caninum) which, just to be confusing, infects both dogs and cats. This worm hides away inside the bodies of fleas and (sometimes) lice; if the pet catches an irritating flea, and bites it, they become infected with the worm. Tapeworms rarely cause major problems in adults, but in puppies and kittens they may cause twisting of the bowel (intussusception) or weight loss.


There are other species of tapeworm, hiding away in other animals - in rats, mice, birds, rabbits, or even sheep, cattle and pigs. Many of these can be transmitted to humans, too!

The final group is the lungworms; the most important is Angiostrongylus vasorum, the Dog Lungworm, which can be fatal. Despite their name, these don’t usually live in the lungs, but in the blood vessels around the heart. They lay their eggs in the blood and the baby larvae crawl into the airways, are coughed up, swallowed, and then passed in the faeces (just like any other worm). Here they infect a slug or a snail who then spreads the next stage of the larvae everywhere it goes, in its slime trail. If a dog licks it (on a food bowl, for instance, or a toy), they become infected. Infection can lead to difficulty breathing, abnormal bleeding, and even death.


All dogs and cats can be exposed to worms; however, those who are outside a lot or, even more so, active hunters, are at the highest risk of infection. Regular worming against roundworms and tapeworms is necessary - usually every three months or so, but active hunters, scavengers, or animals with a high flea burden may need to be done more often. There is now a prescription-only worming tablet that, if given monthly, will treat all three types (including lungworm); alternatively, a spot-on can treat for roundworms and lungworm, and a tablet given periodically for tapeworms.

Of course, there are also parasites outside the body too. The most important (and most common) are the fleas. There are many types of flea in the UK, but the most common is the Cat Flea (Ctenocephalides felis - which, just to be difficult, lives on dogs and rabbits too!). Fleas are jumping, blood-sucking, wingless insects. The trouble is that an adult flea can lay up to 2000 eggs in her lifetime - and they fall off the animal into the carpets, the soft furnishings, even the dust between the floorboards. Here they hatch into larvae (little maggot-like critters), which eventually turn into pupae (like a chrysalis). Here the adult waits, for months or maybe even years, until a dog, or cat, or human wanders past, and it can hatch and feed. At any one time, 95% of the fleas in a house are in the environment, not on the dogs or cats!

Lab-Microscope-Flea.pngThe second group of external parasites are the mites. There are many different forms, from the aggressive, contagious Sarcoptic Mite (Fox Mange, which also causes Scabies in humans!), to the Fur Mite (causing “walking dandruff” in dogs, cats and rabbits), to the Demodex Mite (which normally lives harmlessly in the hair follicles, and only causes problems if they undergo a population explosion). Most mites cause itching, hair loss, and a rash, and can easily be transmitted from one animal to another. 


Control of fleas requires killing of the adults, and breaking of the life cycle - killing or disabling the other forms as well. Mites are harder - each type has its own strengths and weaknesses.

There are a huge range of products available, so if your pet has a parasite problem, talk to one of our vets for advice!

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