Published: November 2020 | Updated: July 2022
A parasite is defined as an organism that lives in or on a host and gets its nutrition at the expense of that host.
Taking it a step further, intestinal parasites in cats and dogs are those that set up shop inside our pets’ GI tract, which is obviously less than ideal for nutrient absorption, digestion and overall health.
Most often, pets contract parasites through ingestion. Although we do our best to prevent it, our animals will likely get their mouths onto something they aren’t supposed to at some point during their lifetimes. Sometimes, these unwanted materials (think: contaminated feces, water, soil, rodents, insects, etc.) will contain parasites that may then infect your cat or dog’s gastrointestinal tract.
Parasites may also be transmitted to puppies and kittens via their mother, either while in utero or during nursing.
What are the symptoms of intestinal worms in dogs and cats?
While the clinical signs of parasites or intestinal worms in cats and dogs may vary based on the type of parasite (see below for more), there are some common symptoms to watch out for, such as:
- Lack of growth and development in puppies and kittens (failure to thrive)
- Dull skin and coat
- Potbellied appearance
- Weight loss
“Scooting” or itching their rear end on the ground
On occasion, you may be able to see parts of worms being shed in your pet’s feces. This is rare, but if you see anything that resembles small white spots or seeds in your pet’s poop or around their rectum, it is wise to visit your vet as soon as possible.
It is also important to note that some pets may have intestinal parasites or worms, but will be asymptomatic. In these cases, the best form of prevention is an annual visit to your veterinarian for a fecal egg test.
The most common intestinal parasites in dogs and cats include:
- Roundworms: Most common in puppies and kittens, roundworms can be passed from mother to offspring and through contact with feces. Roundworm infections are indicated by lower growth rates and body condition, dull coat, and a potbelly.
- Hookworms: Similar to roundworms, hookworm infestations are often found in young animals. The common species of hookworms will cause anemia, and in severe cases even pneumonia. Anemia is due to this worm’s bloodsucking nature, which will also cause bleeding of internal wounds in areas such as the small intestine.
- Whipworms: Adult whipworms will concentrate themselves in the large intestine, and can cause diarrhea, weight loss, and blood in the feces. However, in cases of light parasite infection it is possible to not see any symptoms.
- Tapeworms: Tapeworms can infect many ages and types of animals (indoor, outdoor, hunting, etc.). Tapeworms are found in the intestines and cause improper digestion, upset stomach, diarrhea, and irritability. Good news is, severe disease is not often associated with these worms. If an animal is infected with this intestinal parasite, you can sometimes see eggs or tapeworm segments in the feces.
- Giardia: A one-cell parasite, Giardia is small but can have major impacts. Giardia will reside in the small intestine and cause improper absorption of nutrients, water, and electrolytes, which will in turn lead to symptoms such as diarrhea, weight loss, and dehydration. And to make matters worse, Giardia can also be spread from pets to infect humans.
How to get rid of intestinal parasites in cats and dogs
If it sounds like a lot of the symptoms of intestinal parasites in dogs and cats are nonspecific and similar for different worms, it’s because they are!
The main point to remember is that since all of these internal parasites impact the gastrointestinal tract, they disrupt digestion and absorption of nutrients.
An important step in establishing gut health if you suspect your dog or cat may be infested with parasites is to deworm them to rid the intestines of the parasite. This should be done after consultation with your veterinarian, as they can help determine what parasites may be present and what medications will work best.
Probiotics for intestinal parasites in cats and dogs
Probiotics, such as Saccharomyces boulardii, can not only help re-establish a healthy microbiome after an animal has been infected with parasites, but may also be able to help prevent parasitic infection in the first place.
A healthy gut microbiome is a large contributor to an effective immune system, and therefore providing probiotics can help boost your animal’s immune system and allow them to better fight off any infection.
More specifically, S. boulardii in combination with medication has been shown to reduce the number of Giardia cysts in feces of infected patients even more so than medication alone.
Parasites come in many shapes and sizes and can occur in practically every pet. While we do our best with parasite control practices, it may still happen. Gastrointestinal parasites will negatively impact health by preventing proper digestion and absorption of nutrients.
If you suspect your pet may have a parasite it is best to visit with your vet to determine a treatment plan. Probiotics like S. boulardii can help promote a healthy gut, which may in turn boost the immune system and help prevent parasitic infection in both dogs and cats.