The last things most dog owners want to think about are parasites, especially parasites with creepy names like whipworms. As a result, we tend to avoid learning the necessary information about internal dog parasites until it is too late.
Luckily, whipworms are treatable parasites that owners can prevent. Here is what you need to know about whipworms in dogs to protect your canine companions from complications.
What Are Whipworms?
Whipworms, scientifically known as Trichuris vulpis, are one of the most common intestinal parasites in dogs, along with tapeworms, hookworms, and roundworms. These one-quarter-inch-long organisms live in the cecum and colon (large intestine), where they attach to the mucosal lining. In large numbers, whipworms can cause serious complications, despite their small size.
Whipworms get their name from their shape. They have a thick anterior end and a long, thin, posterior end that resembles a whip. The thicker end embeds itself in the intestinal wall as the worms mature, causing irritation and discomfort.
Owners can help prevent and treat intestinal parasites like whipworms by learning about the whipworm life cycle. While not exactly pleasant to think about, understanding the life cycle of a parasite helps us break up the life cycle to better treat infestations and also helps us choose the appropriate preventatives.
There are three stages of the whipworm life cycle:
Adult whipworms lay their eggs in the large intestine, where they are then passed into the dog’s stool to infect the environment. The eggs mature to an infective state, or embryonate, in the environment, and are ready to re-infect the host or infect a new host in 10-to-60 days. Once ingested, they hatch and mature in the lower intestinal tract, where they attach to feed and lay more eggs, continuing the cycle.
Symptoms of Whipworms in Dogs
Not all dogs show signs of whipworm infections, especially in the early stages. Regular testing for internal parasites can help your veterinarian protect your dog from parasites like whipworms, even if your dog is asymptomatic, but every dog owner should know the symptoms of whipworms in dogs.
When whipworms attach to the cecum and colon, they cause irritation. The more whipworms, the greater the irritation, which can lead to weight loss, diarrhea, bloody stools, and anemia. This causes a decrease in quality of life and body condition score and can be dangerous in puppies, senior dogs, and dogs with compromised immune systems.
Weight loss, anemia, diarrhea, and bloody stools are also symptoms of other serious diseases and parasites. If you notice any of these symptoms, be sure to contact your veterinarian immediately, as it could be a sign of a potentially fatal infection.
Diagnosing Whipworms in Dogs
Veterinarians diagnose whipworms in dogs by taking a stool sample and examining it under a microscope. Adult whipworms pass eggs irregularly, which means that it might take several stool samples for an accurate diagnosis, so be prepared to be patient while your vet rules out other possible causes of your dog’s symptoms.
How Are Whipworms Treated?
If your dog has a whipworm infestation, you will need the intervention of your veterinarian to clear it up. Thanks to the hardiness of their eggs, which can last for up to five years in the right environment, whipworms have a high level of reinfection, making them hard to get rid of.
Your veterinarian may prescribe an anti-worm medication to kill the parasites in your dog’s system and help alleviate his symptoms. There are several common anti-worm medications that are effective in treating whipworms, including febantel, fenbendazole, milbemycin, moxidectin, and oxantel. In addition to medication, a thorough cleansing of kennel areas and runs, when possible, and eliminating moist areas can help destroy whipworm eggs in the environment.
Some heartworm medications can also control infections, which is why regular parasite preventatives are the best way to treat and prevent whipworm infections and reinfections in the future.
How to Prevent Whipworms in Dogs
Despite being one of the most common intestinal parasites found in dogs, whipworms are far less common today than they used to be, thanks to preventatives. Many common heartworm preventatives also prevent whipworm infections.
If whipworms are common in your area, or if your dog was recently diagnosed with whipworms, you might want to consider switching to a heartworm preventative that also prevents whipworms. Look for preventatives with these active ingredients:
Talk to your veterinarian about the best preventative for your dog, and be sure to ask her about any other common parasites in your area. As any dog owner who has had to deal with parasites knows, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.
Can Humans Get Whipworms?
Humans have their own species of whipworm, called Trichuris trichiura, that is spread through human feces. Luckily for us, it is so rare for humans to get whipworms from dogs that the Companion Animal Parasite Council does not consider dog whipworms to be a zoonotic threat. This does not mean that you should not take precautions like wearing gloves and washing your hands when handling infected dog poop, as there are other harmful organisms besides dog whipworms that can potentially harm humans (especially young children), and even a small chance of contracting whipworms from your dog is enough to warrant caution.
If you suspect your dog might have whipworms or some other intestinal parasite, contact your veterinarian immediately. The symptoms of whipworms in dogs could also be a sign of a more serious condition.