Is it effective to treat your pet for worms using over-the-counter medications? The answer is often no.
That's because our animals can harbor a confusing, potentially dangerous collection of internal parasites, such as roundworms, tapeworms, whipworms and heart- worms. Without knowing just what your pet has and the proper medication and dosage to eradicate the pests, you may be wasting your money and not helping your pet at all.
A veterinarian can diagnose what's bugging your pet and prescribe the proper course of treatment. (With heartworms, the procedure's a little different, with the emphasis on preventive medication to keep the pests from making themselves at home.) Animal lovers can help by learning about such parasites as whipworms and working to decrease their pet's exposure.
Whipworms are picked up through ingestion of eggs present in stools of infested animals, either domestic or wild. After the eggs pass through the digestive system, the worms develop in the lower intestine, embedding themselves in the lining, while leaving enough of their bodies exposed to allow the parasite to feed on the matter in the intestine.
The activities of the worms cause few problems at first, since the irritation of the intestinal lining is minor and the quantity of nutrients taken by the worms is not significant. The worms settle in, producing eggs which are excreted with the stools to complete the cycle.
Problems start when the animal ingests more of the eggs and adds to its burden of worms. As the worm load grows, the effects of the infestation start to show. Readily obvious are loss of condition and a dull hair coat, along with an increased thirst and softening of the stools caused by the worms' interference with the function of the lower intestine. Eventually the situation will become serious: The animal becomes dehydrated and emaciated and often will require intensive veterinary care.
Long before that stage, however, whipworms, like other worms, can be diagnosed and treated by a veterinarian. The diagnosis is made from a fresh stool sample, with a test that isolates worm eggs for identification under a microscope.
Treatment consists of administering prescribed medication at intervals designed to completely clear the system of worms. Re-examinations are necessary to make sure the parasites have been eradicated.
Although whipworms are easily diagnosed and treated, they are not easily avoided. Their eggs are hardy -- surviving up to 10 years -- and they are everywhere. Because wild animals such as coyotes carry the pests, pets in rural or newly developed areas are especially prone to pick up the worms.
To keep whipworms from plaguing your pet:
* Clean up the yard daily. Since infested stools lead to infested animals, picking up pet deposits promptly is the best way to ensure your pet avoids contact with whipworm eggs.
* Make sure a stool examination is part of your pet's annual checkup. Examining for internal parasites is one of the best ways to catch a health problem early.
Trainers have for years suggested leaving a radio on to soothe a dog that gets anxious when left alone. But which station? At a recent seminar, New York trainer Job Michael Evans lightheartedly offered his opinion: "Some people think call-in talk shows are the best choice," he said. "But all those people do is whine. Can you imagine listening to whining all day long when you're already upset?
"I recommend 'easy listening.' We know that dogs sleep most of the time they're alone, and what's really needed is some kind of 'white noise' to block out the sound of the outside and keep them from waking up."
I can see the ad campaign now: "K-Snooze: The station that lets sleeping dogs lie."
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.