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With a hook-shaped mouth giving them their name, hookworms are highly contagious intestinal blood-sucking worms that adult dogs and puppies frequently get. There are several species of hookworms in dogs, including Ancylostoma caninum, Uncinaria stenocephala and Ancylostoma braziliense, to name the more common species found in the intestines of our beloved pups. Read on to learn the answer to "How do dogs get hookworms?" as well as how to protect your dog from this parasite.
How Do Dogs Get Hookworms?
Dogs of all life stages are vulnerable to hookworms, and there are four ways dogs can get them:
- Feces: Oftentimes, hookworm eggs are passed in the feces of infected dogs. When an infected dog defecates outside, hookworm eggs are left behind on the soil. Outdoors, the eggs grow and hatch, surviving well in warm, humid environments. After hatching, the juvenile form of the worm, called larvae, is released. It's the larval form of the hookworm that's able to penetrate the skin of its unsuspecting host.
- Ingestion: A dog can get hookworms via ingestion as well. If a dog licks their fur or chews their foot, they can ingest the eggs of the parasite. They can also consume the parasite by eating the feces of an infected animal (known as fecal-oral transmission). According to Today's Veterinary Practice, inside the dog's body, the worm attaches to the intestines with its three sets of teeth and feeds off of their blood supply.
- Transplacental Transmission: Puppies can get hookworms while still inside their mother's uterus. When this happens, the parasites are spread via the placental bloodstream.
- Transmammary Transmission: Lastly, after birth, the puppy can contract the worm through their mother's milk when nursing.
What Are the Clinical Signs of Hookworms in Dogs?
Many dog parents are shocked when their veterinarian finds hookworms during routine fecal exams, but this isn't uncommon as many dogs infected with the parasite don't exhibit clinical signs. Sometimes, you may notice your dog itching, or you might see a rash on their paws because hookworms cause discomfort when they burrow into the skin. If your pup is a paw chewer, this behavior may not initially spark your attention.
Other common signs affect the gastrointestinal tract but may also include:
Pale gums are a result of anemia that can develop as the hookworms ingest blood in the intestines. Failure to thrive is common among puppies with hookworms.
Can Hookworms in Dogs Spread to People?
You bet. Certain diseases, including hookworms, are considered "zoonotic" because they can spread from animals to people. Hookworm larvae are notorious for burrowing into the soles of people's feet, as the New York Post mentioned. It's also possible for a dog to spread hookworms to you by licking or kissing you on the mouth when they have the parasite in their mouth. On rare occasions, the larvae can migrate through tissue in the human body and cause something called "larva migrans." This condition can cause damage to the internal organs and has been linked to many cases of blindness, especially in children.
Lucky for us, the adult form of the hookworm doesn't infect humans and will die within a few weeks when inside of us. However, hookworm infections are on the rise — up 47% from 2012 to 2018, according to a study cited by Veterinary Practice News.
How Are Hookworms in Dogs Diagnosed and Treated?
Diagnosing hookworms in dogs is usually straightforward, involving taking a stool sample and examining a microscopic slide for the presence of hookworm eggs. Eggs aren't guaranteed to always be present as they can shed intermittently. As a result, more than one fecal exam may be essential for diagnosis. Because hookworms don't always cause signs of physical illness, your dog should have fecal exams twice a year.
Several different kinds of medication, called anthelmintics, can effectively treat hookworms. Injectable and oral forms of medications are available as well. Your vet will be able to determine which would be best for your dog. For dogs with severe hookworm infestations, additional treatments may be needed. For instance, dogs who have developed anemia will need to have their blood cell count monitored. They can even require a blood transfusion, though puppies tend to be most at risk for this severe anemia.
Heartworm preventative medication will prevent a dog from getting a hookworm infection, and depending on the product, it may or may not help with an existing infection. Because of this and the frequency of intestinal parasites seen in dogs, routine dewormings are recommended for all dogs. Talk to your vet about any concerns you may have regarding your dog and hookworms. Keep in mind that if you follow best practices for checkups and preventative care, your pup should stay happy and healthy.
Dr. Laci Schaible
Dr. Laci Schaible is a small-animal veterinarian and veterinary writer. She has won numerous awards for her commitment to pet owner education and is considered a leading veterinary telehealth expert.