Worms are a common problem for cats and dogs – especially young kittens and puppies. The nasty parasites live inside their stomach and intestines – getting first dibs on the nutrients and goodness in their food.

Worms come in many shapes and sizes, from the large, stringy roundworm to the tiny hookworm. The two most prevalent are the tapeworm and roundworm.

Tapeworms develop inside fleas that have eaten tapeworm eggs, which the pet then swallows when grooming. Widespread in your pet’s environment, they can grow up to half a metre long and deprive your pet of valuable nutrients from their ideal spot in the intestinal tract.

Roundworms live in the stomach and are contracted when, via an innocent sniff or accidental tread, your pet ingests soil contaminated with faeces from another cat or dog. These wriggling pests have thick, sticky shells and can survive in your garden for up to four years!

Other types of worms, the hookworm and whipworm, are less common but equally as harmful. Hookworms are microscopic, but don’t let their size fool you – they infest in the hundreds or thousands and live off your pet’s blood supply. Whipworms are found in dogs, where they burrow into the bowel wall causing diarrhoea.

Worm warnings
Many pet owners think their pet is worm-free because they can’t see wriggling white bits, but worms are resourceful little pests – they try hard to stay hidden inside their host as long as possible to feed and survive.

The effects of worms on your pet’s health can be extreme. They are capable of causing diarrhoea, coughing, vomiting, a weakened immune system, skin diseases, stunted growth and a dull coat. Look out for white segments (that look like grains of rice) in your pet’s faeces or attached to the anal area, which is a sign of a tapeworm infection. In the case of roundworms, the eggs are too small to be visible, and sometimes there are no noticeable symptoms at all. However, infected pets may drag their rear-end along the floor or suffer from vomiting, constipation, anaemia, weight gain/loss, or hyperactivity.

Wipe out worms
With the possibility of so many unwelcome guests wreaking havoc on your pet’s health, regular worming is essential. Starting your worming routine early in your pet’s life is important, as kittens and puppies may well have worms from birth. With a partial immunity developing with age, mothers often pass on worms through the placenta or their milk. To help combat this, worm your pregnant pet towards the end of her pregnancy and shortly after birth, but always ask your vet to recommend a product for pregnant or nursing pets. Kittens and puppies should be wormed fortnightly from two weeks of age, until reaching 12 weeks, then monthly until the age of six months. From then, worming programmes will depend on different cases, but vets recommend worming every three months using a product that kills all types of worms. And don’t forget, fleas are an important part of the tapeworm’s lifecycle, so one of the most effective worm prevention methods is to get rid of this pesky little biter!

There are other ways to lessen the incidence of worms in your pets. Wash their bedding or kennel regularly; remove excrement promptly from the garden or litter tray; and discourage hunting or the eating of rodents.

Keep ’em worm-free
While worms can pose a serious health problem for your pet, they can be kept in check. Work with your vet to maintain a prevention program to keep your pet healthy and your family safe. Your kittens and puppies may not be so roly-poly, but they will be happier and healthier.

What about us?
Humans are not immune to worms, but the risk of infection is minimal if simple hygiene practices are followed along with regular pet worming. If you suspect that your pet has worms it is a good idea to treat the human family as well, especially if you have children. With their inquisitive nature, children tend to be more susceptible, so it is important to teach them good hygiene practices like washing hands after playing with pets and before meals. It is also sensible not to let your pet lick your face or share your pillow.

Animals great and small
Almost all animals can get worms and it is extremely important to treat all your pets at the same time to prevent reinfection. Horses are particularly prone to worms as they eat the grass on which they defecate. Therefore, they should be wormed as often as every six weeks. Worm your pet bird three times a year, and your rabbit, guinea pig and other small animals twice a year. 

- Author Simone Sommer