Move over, black-legged deer ticks. There is a new parasite taking centre stage in Ontario, and it’s a doozie.
There are a growing number of reports of dogs infected with a unique type of deadly tapeworm that experts say should not be present in Ontario. And in fact, the situation is more widespread than first thought.
And it can infect people, too.
In Canada, this particular tapeworm, called Echinococcus multilocularis, was only thought to exist in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, up until the last few years. However, between 2012 and 2016, six dogs in Ontario have been identified as infected by this concerning parasite.
Andrew Peregrine, a professor at the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College, has published a study on the presence of this tapeworm in Ontario. Peregrine is pushing for better parasite mapping and awareness initiatives in Ontario, as we try to better understand the scope of this problem. Peregrin stated, “If you ask me which parasites scare me most, this would be in the top three. There is no other tapeworm that behaves like this which will cause really nasty disease in people and dogs.”
With regards to this specific type of tapeworm, Peregrine said, “Now we’ve got clear evidence it’s widespread in southern Ontario. The concern about that is now that it’s a very common infection in foxes and coyotes, it’s very likely it will spill over into dogs.” Of the 460 fox and coyote carcasses examined in Ontario in the past two years, almost one quarter tested positive for the Echinococcus multilocularis tapeworm.
Coyotes, foxes, and dogs can get the tapeworm by eating an infected rodent, like mice. They then act as a host for the parasite, carrying it in their small intestine. From there, transmission to other animals comes from highly infective eggs shed in the feces. Just like dogs, coyotes, and foxes, humans can become infected by ingesting these eggs. This may happen in a few ways: not thoroughly washing hands after handling infected pet waste, or having an infected pet with feces on its coat sleeping on your bed, for example. While other tapeworms are large enough to be easily identified, these parasites are significantly smaller, almost undetectable by the human eye.
Interestingly enough, cats are not at risk for the liver form of this infection, however, they are at risk for intestinal infections.
There have been six human cases reported in Alberta over the past four years, with anecdotal reports of some human cases in Ontario. Because this is a relatively new discovery in Ontario, nobody was really looking for this type of tapeworm here, so very little has been documented.
The biggest concern with this tapeworm is that it can lead to a deadly infection called alveolar echinococcosis, or AE. Essentially, this parasite attacks the liver, acting like an aggressive tumour. Incubation periods of AE in humans is between five and fifteen years. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, jaundice, fatigue, and weight loss. Treatment includes surgical removal of the parasite from the liver, and long-term chemotherapy.
To take preventative measures against Echinococcus multilocularis, begin by speaking with your veterinarian about the risks where you live. To stay protected, ask about which anti-parasitic medication is best for your pet. Off-leash dogs are at most risk, since they may run off into unsupervised areas. For dogs who spend their time on leash, or in a fenced-in yard, then the risk is minimised. Depending on where you live, be aware of your surroundings, and keep an eye on things your dog may come into contact with.
At this point, we still don’t know how widespread the Echinococcus multilocularis tapeworm is in Ontario, but it is evident that it will become a more prevalent threat over the next several years.
Brandon Forder – also known as The Pet Expert – is vice-president of Canadian Pet Connection, a family-owned and -operated business located in Meaford. He has over twenty-five years of experience specializing in pet nutrition, behaviour, and healthy pet lifestyles. Canadian Pet Connection is an industry leader committed to providing their clients with the highest levels of personal, attentive service. Learn more at www.CanadianPetConnection.ca.