Did you know that there is a worm known as the whipworm which can affect dogs in England?

Whipworms are parasites which live in the large intestines of the dog. The canine whipworm (Trichuris vulpis) is becoming increasingly prominent worldwide in dogs and can cause numerous diseases should they multiply in infected animals.

What do whipworms look like?

Whipworms are small worms which can reach a size of about seven centimetres.

They have a thin, ‘whip-like’ front end (giving them a ‘whip like’ appearance) and a thicker back end. The whipworms attach themselves to the walls of the large intestine, feeding on blood. Intense whipworm infections can cause significant chronic health problems in dogs.

Adult whipworms produce eggs which have a very distinguished look. These eggs are lemon shaped and can be seen on a microscope examination of the faeces from an infected dog. This is one of the key ways of determining what type(s) of worm a dog is infected with.

What is the lifecycle of the whipworm?

Whipworms have a simple but direct life cycle; their eggs are passed in their faeces and under ideal conditions, they can cause whipworm infections after about two to four weeks in the environment. 

The eggs are then ingested (for example, when a dog is grooming itself or eating things off the ground), turn to larvae and then hatch and burrow through the wall of the lower part of the small intestines, here they will go through four growth stages.

During the final stage the larvae become mature adults and move down to the large intestine where the cycle begins again. The larvae take about 12 weeks to become mature and capable of producing more eggs, which then pass to the environment, where the eggs can survive for years.

Whipworms are more common in older dogs than puppies, but they can infect dogs of any age.

How are whipworms transmitted?

Dogs can become infected with whipworm by eating the eggs, or during the larvae stages of which have been passed in the faeces of infected dogs. These eggs, once passed into the environment can contaminate soil and grass in the local environment. Dogs can then accidentally ingest them when they are out and about.

What are the signs of whipworm in my dog?

Whipworms embed their front end into the wall of the large intestine, causing damage to the intestine as the worm feeds on blood and tissue fluid.

In dogs with light infections, there are usually no symptoms. However, as an infection intensifies, inflammation of the large intestine can result, and any of the following symptoms may appear:

  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhoea
  • Mucus or blood in the faeces 
  • Anaemia (pale gums, weakness) can be seen with chronic, heavy infections
  • Becoming lethargic

It’s important to remember that the symptoms of the infection may be present before there is any visual evidence of the whipworm eggs. Adult dogs seem to be more at risk of having a whipworm burden than puppies, and older more than younger dogs.

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Are whipworms zoonotic?

There have been cases of the canine whipworm infecting humans. However this seems to be extremely rare, and the canine whipworm is not considered a significant threat to humans. 

Animal whipworms may not be considered a significant human health risk; however, we do have a species of human whipworm: Trichuris trichuria. If you are concerned you have been exposed to whipworms, please contact your local healthcare provider.

How can whipworms be diagnosed?

The eggs of whipworms can be detected in a stool sample under the microscope. Unlike roundworms and hookworms, female whipworms only produce eggs intermittently, so the eggs can be difficult to catch on a faecal test. The eggs are lemon shaped with a thick smooth shell and have an obvious “plug” at each end. 

Repeated tests may be necessary, and if a whipworm infection is suspected, it is common to treat for whipworms even if evidence of eggs is not found.

How can I prevent and treat whipworms in my dog?

You can – by making sure you regularly worm your dog with an appropriate wormer.

A recommended NFA-VPS (Non-Food Animal – Veterinary surgeon, Pharmacist and SQP) product which is used in the prevention of whipworm is Drontal for Dogs

Drontal is a broad-spectrum de-wormer which is effective against all major roundworms (including whipworms) and tapeworms. Remember that the eggs of the whipworm can survive in the environment for many years, so routine worming is vital.

There are many other wormers on the market to discuss with your SQP or veterinary surgeon which might be appropriate for your dog. Dogs should be wormed regularly; one common plan is worming every month until 6 months of age and then every 3 months for life. 

However, the best protocol for you and your dog should be discussed with your veterinary surgeon or SQP. 

Other preventions include:

  • Clean up after your dog quickly. This will help prevent further spread of whipworms.
  • I would strongly recommend that all owners wash their hands regularly to help minimise any likelihood of human related diseases from parasites.
  • Should you think your dog may have a whipworm infection, then the first action is to head straight to your vet. 

Your vet will carry out a full physical examination, literally checking your dog over from nose to tail! If there is a risk your dog may have worms, your vet will prescribe a worming treatment suitable for your pet, which should eliminate any problems. In serious cases your vet may also need to be given other supportive treatments. Your vet can also help you plan a worm prevention plan going forward, to ensure your dog stays protected.

All dog owners should be aware of the signs and symptoms of whipworm infestation within their dogs, plus how to take steps to prevent its occurrence and treat any problems that arise.

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Should you have any concerns about whipworm, other parasitic worms or worming products then please seek advice from your qualified RAMA or veterinary surgeon.

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