Having pets has advantages. Without a doubt, your forever friend is your TV buddy, snuggle pal, meal companion, fitness trainer and best listener in the world.
If there’s a cloud inside your pet’s silver lining, though, it’s probably in the form of the daily cleanup. Your pet’s waste is the “other side” of those fun snacks and kisses. However, the task of pet waste cleanup is an important part of your relationship with your pet.
The obvious necessity of this cleanup is that it removes the odor and mess produced by your loving pets. Whether it’s Fluffy’s litter box inside your home, Fido Jr.’s pee-pee pads by the door or Fido Sr.’s outdoor piles, regular waste removal will please the olfactory and visual senses.
There are also health reasons — for you, your family and friends, and your pets — why you should consider the cleanup task more frequently.
Pet feces is an important source of parasites. These little critters live inside Fido and Fluffy and may cause variable illness. Perhaps more seriously, many pet parasites also cause illness in people. Children are most susceptible.
That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends testing the stool at least annually in pets that appear healthy and more frequently in ill pets or those at greater risk, such as cats that go outdoors.
Pet owners sometimes erroneously believe that if their pet’s stool looks normal, it’s OK and there’s no need to think about parasites. In fact, intestinal parasites generally live inside the pet’s gut and periodically release eggs. It’s often the microscopic eggs — not the adult worms — that are detected during lab testing.
Roundworms are an example of a common parasite. These worms are typically transferred from dam to puppy or kitten either during pregnancy or nursing. The CDC advises that all puppies should be assumed infested with roundworms unless the puppy or kitten has been properly dewormed or multiple consecutive lab tests fail to find roundworm eggs.
Roundworms, though, are also regularly found in the stool of adult pets. These cats and dogs may appear healthy, or they may have signs of illness such as diarrhea or weight loss. Their stool can be contaminated with thousands of microscopic worm eggs, invisible to the naked eye, but infective to other mammals. Not only are dogs or cats susceptible, but people are, too. This is a genuine public health concern.
When pet roundworms infest a person, the parasite migrates through the body. Clinical signs of illness depend on which human organ the worm invades. According to the CDC, larval penetration of the eye can cause permanent blindness in 70% of those affected.
Parks and playgrounds are common sources of contaminated soil. These places are popular with dog walkers and families with children. Unfortunately, not everyone is diligent about scooping their dog’s poop. Even after weeks have passed and the rain has washed the feces into the ground, roundworm eggs are still lingering and infective. These eggs persist despite summer heat and winter cold.
Children are at greatest risk of roundworm infestation from pets, partly because they like to play in the soil and they put their hands in their mouths frequently. Children also like to play in sandboxes, which are popular litter boxes for outdoor cats.
Hookworms are another intestinal pet parasite of public health significance. Like roundworms, hookworms are transmitted to puppies and kittens by their mothers. All puppies and kittens should be tested for this parasite, and the CDC recommends proper deworming because tests may miss microscopic eggs. They are a concern in adult pets and people, too.
Hookworms like soil and sandy beaches. They penetrate the skin of people after contact with contaminated areas. The hookworm larvae wiggle under skin, searching for their proper host. This red, itchy rash in people is called cutaneous larval migrans.
If you and Fido like to romp on the beach, be considerate of others and scoop his poops. Hookworm infestation can affect anyone who plays or lounges there.
Other common microscopic parasites found in pet stool include whipworms, Giardia and coccidia. These are less hazardous for people but are quite contagious to cats and dogs.
If you see ricelike worms in your pet’s stool or under his tail, they are likely tapeworm segments, released by the mature tapeworm inside your pet. Fresh segments appear as plump, wiggly rice pieces. Older segments are dry and resemble uncooked rice. These eventually break open, releasing thousands of eggs. If your pet sleeps on your pillow, you may find tapeworm segments when you go to bed.
Although the notion of sweet Fluffy or Fido carrying parasites is distasteful, the easy solution is common sense. Whether you are at home or in public, be diligent about picking up after your pet. Practicing good hand-washing hygiene is always helpful, too.
Dr. Heidi Bassler practices at Bassler Veterinary Hospital at Crossroads Plaza in Salisbury. Do you have questions for her? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.