Unfortunately, the types of parasite that can infect your dog come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and whipworm is just one of them. As a responsible pooch parent, it’s a good idea to be clued up on the various parasites that can affect your dog, what they look like, what symptoms they can cause, how to get rid of them and how you can prevent the infestation from happening in the first place. And we’re here to give you all of that information.
In this article, we’re focusing on whipworms, which are irritating intestinal parasites that can cause your four-legged friend a whole host of problems, so keeping reading to find out everything you need to know about whipworms.
Whipworms, or Trichuris vulpis, are 1 of 4 of the most common intestinal parasites that can affect dogs, the remaining ones being hookworms, tapeworms and roundworms.
Intestinal parasites refer to parasites that reside internally in your dog’s intestine, as opposed to external parasites such as ticks and fleas which live on your dog’s skin and fur. Whipworms specifically are super small creepy crawlies, measuring at approximately 6mm long, living in the cecum and large intestine (colon). The cecum is the little pouch that connects the small intestine to the large intestine.
As their name would suggest, whipworms are whip-like in shape, their front end is thick and is said to be the ‘handle’ of the whip, and then they have an extended, thin posterior which resembles the actual whip. They latch onto your dog’s intestinal wall using their body’s ‘handle’ and as they suck on your dog’s blood, they can cause a lot of pain and discomfort despite they’re miniature size. Whipworms are small but mighty!
These bothersome bloodsuckers use your dog as their host, feeding from their blood. All parasites need a living host to survive, and unfortunately your poor pooch can often suffer the brunt of this.
Although we don’t want to think any longer than necessary about these nasty creepy crawlies and what they’re doing inside your pup’s body, having a basic understanding of the parasite’s life cycle makes it a lot easier for your vet to determine how the bug is affecting your pooch and what treatment method is appropriate to eliminate them.
Luckily, the whipworm has a pretty basic life cycle. As with most parasites, the whipworm has 3 main stages to its life, starting as an egg, hatching into larvae and then maturing into an adult whipworm. Once your pooch has a whipworm infestation, this is medically referred to as ‘trichuriasis’.
So, the life cycle starts when the adult whipworms lay eggs in your dog’s large intestine, which are then passed into the environment through your dog’s stool. These eggs can survive for a long time in the right environment, they’re particularly resilient to most weather conditions, whether that be freezing temperatures or boiling hot climates. In the optimum environment, they can survive for around 5 years!
The eggs mature into infective larvae and are then ready to either re-infect the initial host animal or another unlucky host animal that passes by. They then hatch in the small intestine and mature into adult whipworms in the lower intestinal tract, where they feed on your dog’s blood and start laying more eggs, repeating the life cycle. However, it does take quite a number of weeks after hatching for the female whipworm to begin laying eggs.
So, as we know, the parasite is spread when whipworm eggs are shed in your dog’s stool.
Although our dogs are absolutely adorable, they can be pretty disgusting, as many of our canine friends are partial to eating a bit of dog poo. Due to this horrible habit, many dogs can become infected with a parasite such as whipworm if they’re unlucky enough to ingest infected faeces.
However, let’s not give every pooch this bad reputation. Your dog might not be the slightest bit interested in eating faeces, but they still might be really unlucky and inadvertently consume the parasite in some way. This can happen by just sniffing around the infected poo, eating things from the ground that are contaminated and even by grooming and licking themselves after walkies, as the eggs could have got latched onto your dog’s furry coat.
For some reason, it seems that senior dogs are more at risk of suffering from a whipworm infestation, however, any dog of any age or breed is susceptible.
Places where the pooch population is high, such as kennels and shelters, are always more likely to see an increased rate of parasitic infection due to the increased number of canines in one place. To be quite frank, more dogs equals more poo, meaning that the chances of a dog coming into contact with contaminated faeces is much higher than a pooch living in a one dog household.
In the early stages of a whipworm infection, your dog might not show any signs at all that anything is wrong. Therefore, it’s essential to visit your vet for annual check-ups to help protect your pooch from whipworms and other parasites, catching them in the early stages.
The more whipworms in your dog’s intestine, the more severe the irritation and discomfort your dog experiences will be. Look out for signs including:
Anaemia refers to the dangerous decrease in red blood cells in your dog’s body, which can be a severe problem for puppies who haven’t got a well-developed immune system. This happens because whipworms are greedy bloodsuckers, stealing your dog’s blood for themselves and causing your pooch to suffer with extreme internal blood loss.
Sometimes, although extremely rare, a whipworm infestation can also cause an illness that’s similar to Addison’s disease, which causes weakness and electrolyte imbalance. However, at this current time, this syndrome isn’t very well understood.
Puppies, senior pooches and dogs with a compromised immune system will struggle the most with the symptoms of a whipworm infection, so it’s important to be super vigilant. Also, all the symptoms of a whipworm infection are pretty nonspecific, so if you notice any of these changes it’s essential to get your four-legged friend checked out straight away to ensure you know exactly what is causing the problem and get it treated immediately.
Due to their nonspecific symptom set and the tiny, undetectable size of whipworm eggs, a whipworm infection can be tricky for owners to detect.
As with most worm infestations, the vet will need to take a stool sample from your dog to examine. Once a sample has been obtained, your vet will likely perform a test referred to as a faecal flotation, which involves dropping a solution into the stool sample that triggers the parasite’s eggs to float to the top and stick to a glass slide placed above the sample container.
Although this technique is usually reliable and effective, a whipworm infection can sometimes cause an issue. Since it takes several weeks for a female adult whipworm to lay eggs after hatching in the intestine, any tests performed quickly after the infection began could come out as falsely negative, stating that there are no worms present even though there is. Therefore, it’s important to be patient and test several times.
To treat a whipworm infection, your vet will prescribe an anti-worming medication that should eliminate those greedy parasites living and feeding from your dog, and it should also work to help ease any symptoms that the whipworms are triggering too.
However, treatment can be frustrating and seemingly never-ending as re-infection is common when it comes to a whipworm infestation. This is because the eggs are so hardy and resilient to various weather conditions, surviving for a really long time. Therefore, it’s important to try and thoroughly clean the areas where your dog goes to the toilet regularly to try and destroy any eggs that are still lurking in the environment ready to re-infect.
Your vet might also recommend coming back in a few months’ time to treat the pesky parasites once again to totally confirm they’re all eradicated from your pooch’s system.
Thankfully, due to the widespread use of parasite preventatives, whipworm prevalence and rate of infection is much lower than it once was.
So, the best way to prevent any kind of parasitic infection is by using preventative products, and these most commonly come in the form of oral tablets or spot-on treatments. Typically, one medication can manage and prevent various different parasites. Speak to your vet about which preventative works the best for you, as the ideal one could differ depending on you, your pooch, your lifestyle and even the season.
As we know, whipworms live inside your dog’s system and can go unnoticed for quite some time, much like many other greedy little internal parasites. So, to try and catch the infections early and have peace of mind that your dog is living parasite-free, it’s important to book your pooch in for their annual vet check-ups so they can get fully checked over and the vet can ensure your furry friend is in tiptop shape.
Finally, another very simple way to prevent whipworms, and other intestinal parasites for that matter, is to clean up after your dog as soon as they’ve been to the toilet. Worm eggs are passed through dog faeces, so by getting rid of the faeces straight away you are limiting your dog’s exposure to contamination.
Luckily, it’s extremely unlikely to catch whipworms from your dog, to the extent that they aren’t considered to be a zoonotic threat. To clarify, a zoonotic disease is an illness that can jump from animals to humans.
The species of whipworm that infects dogs is pretty exclusive to our canines, and would not want to use a human as their host. However, humans do have their own species of whipworm, named Trichuris trichiura, which is transmitted through human faeces. You would not catch this from your pooch.
All in all, whipworms are just one of those greedy creepy crawlies that all dog owners should be aware of in case their four-legged friend is ever faced with an infection. If your pooch does ever encounter an infection, luckily the treatment is effective and reliable, so those bothersome little bugs will be gone after not so long.
Written by: Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS
Andy graduated from Bristol University in 2010 and sees nutrition as a foundation for our pet's wellbeing and takes a common-sense approach. We are what we eat, and it shouldn't be any different for our pets.