‘The silent killer’ might be threatening your dog

Amboseli Reserve, Kenya --- Dung Beetle --- Image by © Ric Ergenbright/CORBIS

Experts are warning pet owners of a life threatening condition – known as ‘the silent killer’ – that is steadily affecting more dogs in Pretoria.

The condition, Spirocercosis, is caused by an infestation of Spirocerca Lupi (S. Lupi) worms that are spread from dog to dog in their faeces via small dung beetles.

Sister Julia van Draanen of the Valley Farm Animal Hospital in Faerie Glen said she was very concerned as they had recently been diagnosing more and more dogs with Spirocercosis. “But for every pet that we are diagnosing there are many going undiagnosed due to symptoms being very vague and often not being seen until the late stages of the disease — hence ‘the silent killer’,” Van Draanen said.

S.Lupi is a very deadly worm that lives in the pet’s (primarily dogs) oesophagus after a long journey through the body. On its journey to the target organs (oesophagus and aorta), S. Lupi causes serious damage that leads to diseases of the intestinal, respiratory and circulatory system.

According to Van Draanen there has been an increase in these worms in urban areas due to the increase in the green belt areas and lush gardens that create favourable conditions for the carrier of the parasite, namely dung beetles. It can also live in animals that prey on dung beetles such as mice, lizards, birds, and rabbits.

The worm’s life cycle begins with the adult parasite living within lumps (nodules) in the wall of the oesophagus. The female worm then drills a hole through the nodule and lays her eggs into the lumen of the oesophagus which is then excreted in the dog’s vomit or faeces.

The egg infected excretions then serves as a meal for dung beetles. The larvae then emerge in the stomach of the dog once the beetle or any of the other carriers have been ingested. The larvae then bore through the stomach wall and move along the small blood vessels where it will reach the oesophagus via the aorta after three weeks. It then stays there for three months until it becomes an adult worm.

“Early diagnosis is extremely challenging due to non-specific clinical signs,” Van Draanen explained. “In most cases it will only be diagnosed in the advanced stages and thus when oesophageal nodule formation has already occurred causing symptoms like vomiting, regurgitation, weight loss, increased salivation, the inability to swallow and painful swallowing,” she added.

According to an article compiled by Dr Liesel van der Merwe of the Valley Farm Animal Hospital, dogs react differently to these nodules. Some dogs, especially fox terriers, show signs of sever irritation with even small nodules (gagging, swallowing, retching) whereas other dogs may show no symptoms until the nodules are large. Other symptoms associated with the migration can be fevers, joint pain, coughing, and difficulty breathing. With time, and due to the chronic irritation caused by the worm in the tissue, these nodules can become cancerous.

“Prevention and early detection is essential for treatment to be effective,” Van Draanen said.

Treatment involves a series of Doramectin injections or the use of topical antiphrastic called Advocate. Unfortunately there is no treatment for cancerous nodules or aortic aneurysms. Surgical removal of cancerous nodules can be attempted after a CT scan has been done.

“This does not mean you have to get rid of your beautiful garden but it is necessary to keep your garden free of dog faeces. Dung should ideally be removed from the garden on a daily basis, or weekly if you have a very busy schedule. It should then be placed in municipal waste bags to ensure removal from the property. Fence off any dung containing compost heaps and monthly application of Advocate in non-infected dogs is also recommended to protect your dog from the silent killer,” she added.

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