Experts are working to raise awareness about the lungworm parasite following reports that it has spread from its usual domain in southern England into northern England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland—areas which were not previously considered to be at risk. If a dog contracts the parasite and it’s left untreated, it can be fatal in severe cases.
With cases of lungworm on the rise, here’s everything you need to know about the potentially deadly condition.
What is lungworm?
Lungworm is a type of parasitic worm—also known as angiostrongylus vasorum—which affects dogs and foxes. Once dogs are infected, adult lungworms live within the chambers of the heart, and in the artery that connects the heart to the lungs. They get their name because they primarily cause lung-related issues, including coughing.
How is lungworm transmitted?
Unlike many diseases, lungworm is not actually passed directly from dog to dog. The parasite needs slug and snail hosts in order to grow and develop, and dogs and foxes become infected from eating these or coming into contact with their slime, in the garden or while out on walks. The average British garden is home to more than 20,000 slugs and snails, so the risk of a dog encountering a lungworm host is high.
Lungworm larvae can survive for over 15 days in infected slime, so the parasite can be contracted when a dog comes into contact with something that is covered with slime from the snails. Drinking bowls, toys, and sticks left out overnight can therefore increase the risk to dogs.
The lungworm larvae is then passed out in the infected dogs’ waste and eaten by slugs and snails, thus perpetuating the parasite’s life cycle.
How common is lungworm?
There have been 2,762 recorded confirmed cases of lungworm in the UK, however many are still unreported. Dr Huw Stacey, director of clinical services at Vets4Pets, explains that the disease is spreading throughout the country:
“Previous studies have shown that practices in south Wales and south-eastern England were between 15 and 16 times more likely to see a case than anywhere else in the UK, but this is slowly changing. Cases of lungworm being seen in Scotland shows that the parasite can easily establish itself in a new area that wasn’t considered a traditional place for cases.” (source)
He noted that the increase in infections amongst foxes in previously unaffected parts of the country suggests that there’s an increased risk to dogs:
“Foxes are a key indicator, as lungworm cases are likely to be mirrored in dogs, so we can make an informed assessment of risk to dogs in areas of high numbers of infected foxes.”
Recent surveys have confirmed that the lungworm prevalence in foxes in Greater London has nearly reached 75 percent, while the number of infected foxes in northern England has gone from zero to 7.4 percent in the last decade. And with more and more foxes living in urban areas, even walking a dog in a city could leave them at risk of contracting the parasite.
Dr Huw Stacey, added: “The continued spread of the lungworm parasite throughout the UK over the past ten years or so means the UK dog population is increasingly at risk.”
Has my area been affected?
You can check this interactive map to see if any infections have been recorded within your postcode.
Are certain dogs more likely to become infected?
While dogs of all ages and breeds are susceptible to lungworm, playful dogs under two years of age are more prone to picking up the parasite, as are dogs who purposely eat slugs and snails.
Am I at risk?
No, lungworm cannot be transmitted to humans.
What are the effects of lungworm?
When a dog becomes infected, lungworm causes progressively worsening signs of cardiac and respiratory disease, as well as haemorrhages in the lungs, liver, intestines, eyes, and spinal cord, or really anywhere in the body. Dogs with severe lungworm infections can become very ill and sadly nine percent of infected dogs will die so it’s important to take your dog to the vet immediately if you suspect they have been infected.
What are the symptoms of lungworm in dogs?
There are a variety of signs that could indicate that your dog has contracted lungworm. The early stages of the infection may not show any symptoms and the signs can easily be mistaken for something else, so it’s key that you keep a close eye on your dog.
The most common symptoms of lungworm infection are:
- Changes in your dog’s breathing or it is struggling to breathe
- Changes in your dog’s appetite, for example, going off food
- Weight loss
- An upset stomach with vomiting and/or diarrhoea
- Lethargy and depression
- Unexplained or excessive bruises
- Pale gums
- Bleeding including blood in the urine, stool, vomit or a cut that’s not clotting
If your dog is experiencing any of these signs you should make an appointment with your vet as soon as possible.
How do you test for lungworm in dogs?
If a vet doesn’t find worms it still doesn’t mean your dog isn’t infected. Your vet may use a variety of diagnostic methods, such as blood tests, analysis of stool samples for eggs and larvae, chest X-rays, and even bronchoscopy—where a thin tube is passed through the nose or mouth, down the dog’s throat and into their lungs, allowing the vet to look at your dogs lungs and air passages.
What is the treatment for lungworm in dogs?
If you’re concerned your dog is displaying signs of the disease or is at risk from lungworm infection, then call your vet immediately. Once diagnosed and treated, most dogs make a full recovery and, as with all diseases, it’s important to take action early. Treating the infection is relatively straightforward and typically does not require invasive or costly treatment when caught early enough. In the early stages treatment could be as simple as administering a monthly medication. If the symptoms are more advanced, however, there is a greater likelihood of permanent damage.
How can I prevent my dog from getting lungworm?
Even though you can’t stop your dog from being exposed to lungworms there are lots of ways to prevent an infestation from developing. The disease is completely preventable with worming tablets and spot-on treatments, but as not all worming treatments are effective against lungworm, it is best to visit your vet for advice.
Don’t leave your dog’s toys or water bowls out overnight to prevent slugs and snails from crawling over them and leaving behind trails that contain the larvae. Changing water bowls regularly is also a good idea.
Clean up after your dog has gone to the toilet—this will help to stop the spread of the parasite to other animals.
Keep a close eye out for any slugs or snails in the area and keep your dog away.
The bottom line
Prevention is key so talk to your vet about the worming medication that you should be administering to keep your dog safe. It doesn’t hurt to be more vigilant and keep an eye out for snails and slugs especially when walking your dog. And if you suspect that your dog could be infected, you should take your pet to see the vet as soon as possible, as early treatment is always best.
Featured image: Jutta Bauer/Getty Images via countryliving.com