What are hookworms?
Hookworms (Ancylostoma caninum, Ancylostoma braziliense) are intestinal parasites of the cat and dog that get their name from the hook-like mouthparts they use to anchor themselves to the lining of the intestinal wall. They are only about 1/8″ (3 mm) long and so small that it is very difficult to see them with the naked eye. Despite their small size, they ingest large amounts of blood from the tiny vessels in the intestinal wall. A large number of hookworms can cause life-threatening anemia. This problem is most common in puppies, but can occur in adult dogs.
Are some dogs more likely to get hookworms?
Hookworms are more common in warm, moist environments. Conditions of overcrowding and poor sanitation contribute to infection.
How do dogs get hookworms?
Dogs may become infected with hookworms by one or all of four routes:
- Through the skin
- Through the mother’s placenta before birth (in utero)
- Through the mother’s milk
Female hookworms pass hundreds of microscopic eggs in the feces of infected dogs, where they contaminate the environment. Larvae hatch from the eggs and can remain infective in the soil for weeks or months. A dog may become infected when it inadvertently swallows hookworm larvae, often by grooming its feet, or from sniffing feces or contaminated soil. The larvae may also burrow into the skin if the dog walks or lies on contaminated ground. Once in the host’s body, the larvae migrate to the intestine where they mature and complete their life cycle. Part of the life cycle of the hookworm involves migration through muscle tissues, where they may become dormant.
If a pregnant dog had hookworms in the past, the pregnancy may reactivate dormant larvae, which then enter the female’s bloodstream and infect the puppies in the uterus or through the mother’s milk during nursing. Prenatal and transmammary infections are an important route of infection for puppies.
What are the clinical signs of hookworm infection?
The most significant clinical signs are related to intestinal distress and anemia. The parasites anchor themselves to the intestinal lining so that they can feed on tissue fluids and blood, injecting an anti-coagulant substance, which can cause continued bleeding after the hookworm has detached from the feeding site. Therefore, the dog can suffer blood loss from the hookworms’ feeding, as well as continued bleeding into the bowel from the attachment sites, causing anemia. Pale gums and weakness are common signs of anemia. Some dogs experience significant weight loss, bloody diarrhea, or failure to grow properly with hookworm infection. It is not uncommon for young puppies to die from severe hookworm infections.
Skin irritation and itching, especially of the paws, caused by larvae burrowing into and along the skin, can be signs of a heavily infested environment.
How are hookworms diagnosed?
To diagnose hookworm infection, a fecal ova and parasite screen will be run. A small amount (~2grams) of fresh feces (not more than 24 hours old) is needed to run the test. This sample will be sent to a reference lab which uses a testing process called centrifugal floatation with microscopic examination to look for parasite eggs . This is the most accurate way to get a diagnosis as simple fecal flotations may miss parasite eggs. In some cases, it may take more than one test to find the parasite as they are not always shed in the fecal mater continuously.
It takes 2-3 weeks for hookworm larvae to mature and begin producing eggs. For this reason, fecal examination may be less reliable in very young puppies than in adult dogs.
How is a hookworm infection treated?
There are several effective drugs, called anthelmintics, which will eliminate hookworms. Most are given orally and have few, if any, side effects. However, these drugs only kill the adult hookworms. Therefore, it is necessary to treat an infected dog again in about two to four weeks to kill any newly formed adult worms that were larvae at the time of the first treatment.
In rare cases, a blood transfusion may be necessary in dogs with severe anemia.
Since the dog’s environment can be infested with hookworm eggs and larvae, it is critical that you remove any feces from your yard promptly. Use gloves to place the feces in plastic bags and discard in your trashcan. There are currently no approved available products to eliminate hookworm larvae from your yard. The best prevention is to remove feces from your yard daily and have your pets on a monthly heartworm preventive that also protects against hookworm infection.
Are canine hookworms infectious to people?
Adult hookworms do not infect humans; however, the larvae can burrow into human skin. This causes itching, commonly called “ground itch”, but the worms do not mature into adults. More dangerous is the condition in which hookworm larvae migrate throughout the body, damaging the eyes and internal organs. Direct contact of human skin to moist, hookworm infested soil is required. Fortunately, this is extremely rare if normal hygiene practices are observed.
In rare instances, the canine hookworm will penetrate into deeper tissues and partially mature in the human intestine. A few reports of hookworm enterocolitis (small and large intestinal inflammation) have occurred in the recent past.
What can be done to control hookworm infection in dogs and to prevent human infection?
All puppies should be appropriately dewormed as recommended by your veterinarian. The first deworming should be given at two to three weeks of age. Note that this is prior to the time most puppies are seen for first vaccines. Deworming is then repeated every 2 weeks until 12 weeks of age, then monthly until 6 months of age in puppies. It is entirely appropriate to present new puppy for initial examination and deworming only.In addition, prompt deworming should be given if the parasites are detected. Routine deworming of adult dogs is also recommended. Dosing ranges from monthly during warmer months and periodically during cooler months to year round monthly treatments depending on risk. Your vet can help you determine the most appropriate deworming program for your dog.
It is also advisable for all dogs to have a fecal examination once to several times a yearly depending on their risk. This way we can make sure our dewoming programs are working and also pick up other parasites not currently being treated for.
Prompt disposal of dog feces should occur, especially in yards, playgrounds, and public parks.
Strict hygiene is important, especially for children. Do not allow children to play in potentially contaminated environments. Frequent hand washing and bathing are essential in preventing human infections.
Nursing females should be de-wormed with their puppies. Pregnancy and nursing may reactivate a dormant hookworm infection in the female dog, which will then infect her puppies.
Most heartworm prevention products contain medication to treat hookworm infections. Some of these products will kill the adults, while others will also kill larval stages and prevent infestations. Your veterinarian can advise you of the spectrum of activity for the product prescribed for your dog.
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