What You Need to Know About Hookworms

The name ‘hookworm’ sounds like something you might put on your fishing line. However, hookworms are actually something you (and fishermen) would want to avoid at all costs. But what exactly are hookworms and why should we avoid them? Most importantly, how can you get rid of hookworms? Let’s find out!

What are hookworms?

Hookworms, like tapeworms, are parasites that survive by living off another organism. Their mouths have small hooks that allow them to attach to the inner wall of the small intestine of humans and other animals (typically carnivores like dogs and cats). Hookworms are transmitted through fecal matter as eggs.

These eggs hatch in the soil and the worms infect any human or other animal that comes in direct contact with the larvae. Do not walk barefoot in areas where animals defecate or places with poor sanitation. Further, you should keep your pets away from such areas, clean up after pets promptly, and maintain regular vet visits.

Close-up view of a parasitic hookworm

Kateryna Kon//Shutterstock.com

The first sign of hookworm infection is typically skin irritation and rash at the worm entry site. Worms usually enter the human body through the soles of the feet. They then travel through the blood vessels to the heart and lungs, then into the throat, where they are swallowed.

This brings them to the small intestine where they attach and feed on the host’s blood. While many infections are asymptomatic, some cases may include fever, abdominal pain, or diarrhea. Severe infections result in anemia due to blood loss. Pets typically become infected by accidentally ingesting hookworm larvae from the soil.

Alternative means of infection include in utero, through milk, and via direct contact with contaminated soil. In dogs and cats, symptoms of a hookworm infection are weight loss, diarrhea (sometimes with blood), and pale pink gums.

Why are hookworms dangerous?

Hookworms are especially dangerous to dogs. In puppies, they cause severe anemia, which can lead to death. Cats typically carry a smaller load of less aggressive hookworms than dogs. It is vital to seek treatment if you suspect your pet has a hookworm infection.

How to prevent hookworm infection

Hookworms mainly thrive in tropical and subtropical environments and areas with poor sanitation. The best way to prevent hookworms is through sanitation, especially in your pets’ surroundings. Due to the fact that hookworms are transferred through feces, it is important to clean up after your pets and  keep their environment as clean as possible. Be sure to take your pets to the recommended veterinary appointments and keep them up to date on vaccinations.

These practices don’t just keep fur babies happy and healthy, they also help protect you and your family. If your pets are vaccinated and their environment is clean, it minimizes overall risks. However, if you live in an area where hookworms are more likely to occur, you need to take additional precautions.

Avoid walking barefoot in or otherwise coming into direct contact with areas where any pets (or people) may have relieved themselves. Borax and salt work well to kill hookworm larvae outdoors, but cannot be used on lawns because they also kill plants.

How to get rid of hookworms

While these means of prevention are critical, we cannot keep our families and pets in bubbles. In case of hookworm infection, take your pets to a vet and your family members to a doctor. A veterinarian will administer deworming medication to pets, once immediately after diagnosis and again two to four weeks later.

Doctors will prescribe mebendazole or albendazole to treat human infections and may prescribe an additional iron supplement to treat anemia. Mebendazole is available in a chewable tablet under the brand name Vermox, which is prescribed for adults and children two years old and older. 

If you live in an area where hookworms are likely or have traveled to an area with poor sanitation, the safest option is to get a diagnostic check-up. You can become infected and show no symptoms. Be sure to maintain good personal hygiene, keep your surroundings clean, and stay up to date on pet vaccinations.

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Kaye Maye