The incidence of UK dogs affected by killer parasite, lungworm, has rocketed by more than 30 percent in just five years, according to the PDSA.
The parasite, spread by slugs and snails, can cause difficulty breathing, weight loss and can even be fatal.
And the vet charity today warned this could be just the tip of the iceberg as many cases of lungworm go unreported.
PDSA vet Vicki Larkham-Jones said: “There has been a significant increase in the number of confirmed cases of lungworm at our pet hospitals.In 2009 there were 49 confirmed cases and this had risen to 66 cases in 2014. However, the true figure is likely to be much higher, as not all infected animals can be positively diagnosed.”
Foxes can become infected with lungworm, and have been implicated in the spread of the parasite across the country. A recent study by University of Bristol scientists found that in some areas, up to 50% of foxes are infected with lungworm.
What is lungworm?
Lungworm is a type of parasitic worm, called Angiostrongylus Vasorum, that can affect dogs. As an adult worm it lives in the heart and blood vessels that supply the lungs in dogs and foxes. The symptoms you may see in your dog are due to where the worm chooses to live its adult life. As a juvenile worm they complete their life cycles in slugs and snails.
Lungworm is what we call an ‘emerging’ disease. This means that it is gradually becoming more common. Until recently it only appeared in select ‘hot spots’ in the south of the UK but it has been identified in dogs in various parts of the country over the last few years. It is unclear exactly what has caused this spread (and that of other parasites including ticks) but increased movement of pets around the country as well as increasing contact between wildlife and the urban environment is thought to have played a big part.
How do dogs get lungworm?
Unlike many diseases lungworm is not actually passed from dog to dog. The worm needs slug and snail hosts in order to grow and develop and it is from eating these that infection may occur.
How big a problem is lungworm?
Happily at present, this form of infection is still relatively uncommon in many areas but is rearing its head from time to time. Infection can, in extreme cases, cause death of infected patients so it is potentially very serious and yet easily treated.
Not every snail or slug carries the worm and it is much more common in southern parts of Britain than the rest of the UK. However, if your pet regularly eats snails/slugs then there is a risk for them to pick up this worm at some point.
It is advisable to ask your vet about the most common parasites in your area that may affect your pets or even your family and how best to reduce the risk.
What are the symptoms of lungworm?
For the most part after infection, the worm causes progressively worsening signs of cardiac and respiratory disease. This could be seen as things such as a chronic cough, exercise intolerance, difficulty breathing and weight loss. Initially symptoms are only seen at ‘extremes’ of exercise, gradually becoming more obvious as the disease progresses. If you have any concerns about your dog’s health, please speak to your vet.
How is lungworm diagnosed?
An absolute diagnosis of lungworm is often difficult as it relies on finding evidence of worms in either the trachea or faeces of your pet. Perversely, not finding the worms does not mean your dog is not infected. In general diagnosing lungworm infection is based on the history, compatible clinical signs and response to treatment.
How do I prevent/treat lungworm?
Killing the worm is relatively simple, and just requires a change in your normal parasite routine and potentially a change of product to one which also controls lungworm. It does not require invasive or costly treatment when caught early. The more advanced the symptoms/level of infection the more significant the permanent damage is likely to be.
It is because it is so simple and easy to treat that it is recommended adding in treatment for lungworm to your normal worming routine. If you’re are unsure how ‘at risk’ your dog is likely to be it is best to have a chat with your vet as they will know how common this problem is in your area and recommend the most appropriate plan for you and your pet.