A-Z of dog wellbeing: Worms

Worms are one of the most common health problems for dogs and if left untreated, worms can damage your dog’s internal organs and cause many health problems, but so can the chemical flea and worm treatments our vets recommend.

Thankfully we can reduce their worm burden naturally and help keep them healthy without resorting to harsh chemicals.

How dogs get worms

Most puppies are actually born with worms, which are contracted from their mother’s milk, while other dog worms are picked up through everyday interaction with the environment.

  • Eating dead animals or killing animals outside and eating them
  • Eating faeces from another animal
  • Having fleas and swallowing them whilst grooming
  • Picking up worms or larvae from faeces whilst outside
  • Eating slugs or snails or coming into contact with their slime

Types of worm

Lungworm can be fatal to dogs. It is an infection caused which slugs and snails carry. Dogs generally become infected when they play with or eat slugs or snails, or come into contact with larvae left in their slime trails when eating grass, drinking from puddles or outdoor water bowls or playing with toys that have been left outside.

 Roundworms are a very common intestinal worm in the UK – in fact studies have shown that over 20% of dogs and cats may be actively infected at any one time! This means that your dog can be at risk of picking up worms whenever you head outside from contaminated faeces, or even from the soil.

Tapeworms are an intestinal worm transmitted to dogs by fleas. Immature fleas (larvae) ingest the worm eggs and infection is passed on to a dog when it swallows an infected flea. You can often spot tapeworm segments that look like grains of rice in the stool. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to treat your dog for fleas as well as for worms.

Hookworms are blood sucking intestinal parasites with teeth. Small and difficult to spot, in large enough numbers they can suck enough blood to cause serious anaemia, especially in puppies. They are not common in the UK but they are present in Europe.

Whipworms live in the large intestine and don’t extract as many nutrients as other types of worms. Unless the worms burrow into the intestinal tissue, they pose few problems and rarely cause symptoms. They do occur in the UK but aren’t common.

Heartworms are rare but have recently been found in the South East of the UK, however they pose a serious risk for dogs that travel abroad. Transmitted by mosquitoes, these parasites live in the heart, lungs, and associated blood vessels of an infected animal and can cause severe lung disease, heart failure, other organ damage, and death.

How to tell if your dog has worms

Animals with worms may show no obvious outward signs of infection and there may be no changes to their stools. Signs of a high worm burden can include loss of energy, shortness of breath, diarrhoea, or blood tinged stool, mucous in the stool, variation in appetite, poor hair coat, weight loss and vague signs of abdominal or rectal discomfort, abdominal enlargement (pot belly), scooting of the hindquarters and excess licking or irritation around the anus.

Occasionally, you may see worms in the stool. Adult roundworms and hookworms will appear as small to large, off-white to tan, spaghetti shaped parasites. Tapeworms will appear as small, off-white to tan segments in the stool or clinging to hair around the genital area. Fresh segments will be white, half an inch long, and may expand and contract. Dry segments resemble sesame seeds or rice grains and are darker in colour.

The best way to be sure is to carry out a worm count.  I use a postal service from Wormcount.com to screen for lungworm and eggs in faecal matter.  They send me little pots and instructions on how many samples to collect and, once you’ve squished a poo or three into a little pot, you bag it and pop it in the post to them. The best time to collect your poo samples is during a full moon as this is when parasites shed their eggs the most.  A week or so later you get your results.

If you discover that your dog has worms, then please speak to your vet abut the best course of action to help reduce the worm burden.  In this instance, using chemical treatments may be the most appropriate course of action.

The risks of chemicals wormers

The packaging on these products says it is “for treatment of intestinal worms”,  and yet you are still encouraged to give them to your dog every three months, regardless of whether or not they actually have worms.  The same applies to the monthly flea spot-on applications…  It’s like taking an ibuprofen tablet every day, just in case you get a headache.  

There are many different drugs available and, like any drugs, they all have side effects. Here are some examples of the adverse drug events from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These are just for the most common active ingredients in de-worming drugs.

  • Fenbendazole. This is the active ingredient in some of the most commonly used de-worming products including Drontal Plus and Safe-Guard. The most common issues are vomiting, depression/lethargy, diarrhea, anorexia, anaphylaxis, itching and facial swelling. There have been 126 reported deaths.
  • Pyrantel. This is the active ingredient in Drontal Plus. Side effects include vomiting, depression/lethargy, anorexia and 204 instances of death.
  • Praziquantel. This is the active ingredient in Droncit and Drontal. Reported adverse events include vomiting, depression/lethargy, diarrhea, anorexia and 13 deaths.

Some drug manufacturers combine de-worming ingredients with heartworm drugs. They then market these combos as preventives for heartworm and various kinds of intestinal worms. The manufacturers recommend using these drugs monthly. If you do, you’re actually treating your dog unnecessarily for worms he doesn’t have!

How to reduce or prevent worms and fleas naturally

While you can use over-the-counter worming treatments for your dog, these contain chemicals that, by their very nature, carry risks with their use and personally I prefer to manage fleas and worms naturally:

  • Use natural flea and worm treatments – Skye is my ‘bulletproof dog’. I can ask her to do anything and she doesn’t bat an eyelid, but the one thing she was terrified of as a puppy was the ‘pop’ of the spot-on flea treatment I used to use because it made her feel terrible for days afterwards.  That got me thinking about what’s in these treatments and I realised that they are just pesticides, and why would I want to put that on my dog?
     I now use two products all year round to help keep my dogs free from fleas and worms, and I wormcount and check for fleas regularly to be sure of their effectiveness.  Neither of my dogs has had fleas or worms in the 7 years I’ve been using these products.
    Billy No Mates is a very effective, natural flea, mite and tick repellent, available in liquid or dried herbal forms.  Fussy dogs often find the liquid more palatable.
    Verm-X  helps maintain intestinal hygiene to help prevent worms, available in liquid or biscuit  forms.  My dogs love the biscuits that they have at bedtime.
  • Offer de-worming foods – Your dog can tell if they need help with worms and will choose to eat foods that help shed the worms if they have the opportunity to do so. Try offering these foods to your dog, but do not add them to their food.  Put them in a separate bowl so your dog can decide how much they need.
    • Pumpkin seeds are an extremely effective de-worming agent because they contain an amino acid called cucurbitacin which paralyses the worms making them easily eliminated from the intestine. Grind seeds and offer ¼ tsp per 10 lbs of weight.
    • Carrots are a great source of vitamin A and believe it or not, can get rid of worms in our canine companions. Coarsely grated carrots scrape the walls of the stomach and gut as they are digested, removing the mucus and any parasites that are within it. Offer 1 tsp per 10 lbs of body weight per day.
    • Garlic is safe to give your dog in moderate amounts. Offer 1 clove or 1 tsp of chopped raw organic garlic per per 30 lbs of body weight per day.
    • Coconut oil (use organic, virgin coconut oil) is especially helpful to eliminate roundworms, which tend to clump together in the intestines and cause an obstruction. Start gradually and work up to 1 tsp per day per 10 lbs of body weight, but do not offer if your dog has pancreatitis.

Whether you regularly worm using chemical or natural wormers, or you have chosen not to worm at all, the only way to have peace of mind is to be sure that your regime is working. A worm count will check the parasite burden in your animal. It must be remembered though, that a worm count, like an MOT for your car, is only a snapshot of what is going on inside your animal at that moment.  You need to check regularly to ensure the well-being of your pet.