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It's a Wormy World

Make sure your agility dog is not their next meal...

To a certain extent, ignorance is bliss and indeed, the vast majority of well cared for pets in the UK and Ireland will never suffer the serious consequences of a massive worm burden.  However, an appreciation of what we are actually preventing when we cajole Rover to consume 'this yummy tablet' is a vital piece in our armoury to a long-lived, healthy and happy pet. Parasitologist Dr. Jacqueline (Jackie) Boyd explains.

Worming is one of those aspects of pet care where everyone seems to have their own particular preferences and practices. Some dog owners who insist on worming - or to be more accurate, de-worming - on a rigid schedule and at the other end of the spectrum others wait for symptoms of worm infestation before they reach for the tablets and chopped liver. Personal experience has a lot to do with how you view your own particular (de-) worming schedule.

Our dogs are constantly exposed to environmental challenges. Agility dogs are typically exposed to new environments on a regular basis and this combined with often long (and sometimes stressful) journeys, and the physical expenditure that agility training and competition involves means that we have a serious duty of care to our beloved dogs. Parasite prevention is one aspect of this care process in which we can have a real input.

What's lurking there?
There is a massive collection of parasitic organisms just lurking out there waiting to move into or onto Rover either temporarily or permanently. The modern day domestic dog is further challenged by his environment which is typically VERY parasite friendly. Now, while all responsible dog owners "scoop that poop", how often have you walked your dog in areas covered in excrement in various stages of decay. You can bet that those very same owners who conveniently "forget" to pick up their pets poo are the ones who think that de-worming is not really a necessity.

While on this subject, no matter how diligent you are with your own picking up, unless you catch the offending pile before it actually hits the ground, there is always likely to be a degree of contamination. Indeed, studies examining contamination of parks and playgrounds with dog-derived parasite eggs reveal scarily high concentrations, even where poo picking is in force.  Even worse are those occasions when Rover has a tummy upset (maybe after eating the wormy bunny earlier in the week) and it is nigh impossible to gather it all. I know - it's happened to me. Even in your own yard/back garden, diligent poo picking is a vital weapon in the prevention of contamination by worm eggs; particularly if you have young children. Ideally poo should never be left longer than a few minutes, although in the real world a daily sweep is perhaps more feasible.

The faecal oral route of transmission is typically the one of choice for most of the major types of parasites that are likely to affect our dogs. Essentially that means that the worms live and reproduce in the gut, releasing eggs or larval worms in the faeces. These then contaminate the external environment and wait for their next friendly host to come along, when they might stick to grass ingested by the dog or stick to the fur to await being licked off. This is typically when young children might also become infected by accident.

Hook wormHookworms
One of the less nice parasites is the dog hookworm, Ancylostoma caninum which penetrates the skin of its new host and migrates within the host body to its favourite location. This parasite is a major health hazard to nursing pups, as it can often lie dormant in the skeletal muscle of the bitch, and become reactivated by hormonal changes associated with pregnancy and lactation, whereby it is typically transmitted via milk. Infected puppies can rapidly become very anaemic, the parasite essentially "sucking" blood directly from the intestine. This particular worm also has the nasty habit of occasionally infecting humans, which are essentially dead-end hosts. However, the worms will migrate randomly through the body attempting to find a favourable environment for their continued development. This often manifests itself as itchy skin lesions; do a Google search for cutaneous larval migrans and you'll see some attractive photos - if they don't encourage you to pick poo and worm your dog, nothing will!

Tape wormTapeworms
Our dogs also have attractive habits of acquiring fleas either from their cat buddy, or after that big rabbit-ing session.  Fleas, while not only causing distressing itching and scratching, are also associated with the spread of certain species of tapeworms, so it is vital that in also worming your dog (and cat if appropriate), make sure you are also treating for fleas and following flea prevention strategies.  In much the same way that humans can also be accidentally infected by dog parasites, our dogs too can pick up other parasites from consuming other animal's dung containing eggs or larvae, dead and decomposing wildlife and even from the very food we provide them with. For this reason I have to say I am not a great exponent for the feeding of raw meat to my dog. Modern farming methods don't often correlate very well with the type and heath status of game that dogs would "naturally" consume.

Perhaps when you next take your dog to the vet for the booster vaccination or health check, have a quick chat about your current worming strategy and prevention measures, taking into account things like if you have young children or cats in the house, does Rover like eating wild birds, bunnies etc. Your vet will be able to recommend a valid program for you to follow, using the most appropriate treatment for your situation. A faecal egg count might also be a worthwhile check if you think worms might be a problem, or if you want to check Rover's current worm burden.  Parasites are all around us, just waiting to take advantage. Make sure your agility star is not their next meal.

About the author...
Dr. Jacqueline Boyd graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 1998 with a BSc First Class Honours degree in Zoology (Parasitology). The following year she graduated with a MSc (with Distinction) in Animal Nutrition after examining the nutritional effects of parasites on host animals. She continued her interest in Parasitology during her PhD, where she was looking at genes regulating developmental progression in Trichinella spiralis, a parasite classically found in undercooked pork. She is now working on a project looking at aspects of desiccation tolerance in worms at NUI, Maynooth in the Republic of Ireland.

Jackie is slave to a working cocker spaniel, Megan (aka Snoozin Susan of Sleepytown) with whom she started agility training two years ago. Last year was their first season in the UK competing in Mini classes, and they are hoping to have another great year both in Ireland and at home in the UK. Megan is wormed regularly; Jackie poo picks every day and doesn't eat meat. A lot of Parasitologists don't, funnily enough!

For more information about worms, 
visit The PetCenter.com on http://www.thepetcenter.com/exa/worms.html
or College of Veterinary Medicine at University of Georgia  web site on http://www.uga.edu/~lam/kids/worms/default.html