Whipworms, along with tapeworms, roundworms, and hookworms, are one of four common types of intestinal worms affecting dogs in the US. They grow to about ¼ inch long and are more likely to cause symptoms and illness in dogs than many other kinds of worms. Immature whipworms burrow into the lining of the large intestine to mature, after which they take up residence in their host’s cecum, which is where the small and large intestines meet.
Because of the potential to trigger significant symptoms or disease in your service dog, whipworms are arguably the most concerning of the four most common intestinal worms. While puppies are typically in the most danger from a whipworm infection—also known as trichuriasis—adult dogs too are vulnerable to a variety of ill effects that cause suffering and interfere with the performance of essential assistance duties.
How Dogs Contract Whipworms
Whipworms are highly infectious, largely because their resilient eggs can survive in the environment for many months or as long as 5 years, including in feces, soil, food, and water. Eggs pass via the host’s stool, and they hatch into larvae which remain infective for up to about two months.
Dogs become infected when they ingest whipworm larvae, which then mature and lay eggs in the host’s intestinal tract. Ingestion generally occurs when eating something in the environment that contains the larvae or during grooming after walking through a contaminated area.
Canine whipworms only infect dogs. So, if your assistance dog becomes infected, other dogs are at risk, but you, other people, and other types of animals are not. There are feline whipworms, but cats are much less often affected by this type of intestinal parasite than dogs.
Symptoms and Complications of Whipworm Infections
Minor whipworm infections—especially in adult dogs—may not cause any symptoms, or the signs may be subtle. However, watery and/or bloody diarrhea is a common sign, and when left untreated this can lead to dehydration, anemia, debilitation, and possibly death. General digestive upset, loss of appetite, and weight loss are other symptoms of an infection.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Whipworms
Because they lay fewer eggs less frequently than most other intestinal worms, whipworm infections can be harder to detect than others. That’s because diagnosis comes when your vet finds whipworm eggs in your assistance dog’s stool with a microscopic exam. Eggs will not be present in every sample, plus it takes approximately 3 months for whipworms to lay eggs after hatching, meaning they are present for some time before becoming detectable.
For these reasons, many vets choose to administer a whipworm treatment even without diagnosis in the event of unexplained chronic diarrhea. Treatment with an appropriate de-worming agent is relatively safe and highly effective.
Your vet will prescribe a drug that kills the larvae and adult worms. A second dose is generally given three or four weeks later. Reinfection rates are fairly high with whipworms, since their eggs fare so well in the environment. Talk to your vet about establishing a regular de-worming schedule.
Preventing Whipworm Infections in Your Assistance Dog
A lot of heartworm preventatives also effectively prevent or treart whipworm infections. If your service dog isn’t on a regular heartworm prevention schedule, ask your vet about it and discuss the best product for keeping your dog safe from other intestinal parasites.
Remember, stool from an affected dog is the most significant source of whipworm infections and reinfections. Always remove your dog’s feces from the environment promptly and dispose of it securely wrapped. Keep your assistance dog away from other animals’ feces and avoid areas contaminated with feces.