What You Should Know About Lungworm

So, your Cavalier is coughing and gagging. You’ve had him/her to the vet and they’ve ruled out the usual suspects such as congestive heart disease, kennel cough or something caught it the gullet. Hey that happens particularly in Cavaliers who will eat anything! Your vet is perplexed and you’ve done virtually every test suggested. So, what is it? 

Could it be Lungworm? You’ve heard of heartworm? Meet a cousin – Lungworm! This is a parasite that hangs out in the lungs. 

OK not so funny as it can cause serious and possibly fatal health problems for your Cavalier if not treated. The problem is, it is very difficult to diagnose as there is no test like in heartworm. And it is considered to be an emerging disease with more cases being diagnosed in North America. Even though more common in Europe and the UK, in a survey, 25% of UK vets have confirmed at least one case of this disease yet only a few pet owners were even aware it exists. 

So, what is Lungworm and how do dogs get it? 

Lungworm is a type of parasitic worm which dogs get from ingesting or licking slugs and snails (ugh dogs will eat anything!) which are the intermediary carriers. Note: they cannot get it from other dogs or cats. It must go through the slug or snail first. Nor can owners get it from their pets. 

There are different forms of lungworm; Angiostrongylus vasorum which can be fatal and Crenosoma vulpis aka fox lungworm which is still serious but not usually fatal. Foxes are most often the host for both so if you have foxes in your neighborhood you should be aware of lungworm. 

The symptoms of lungworm are a chronic cough, breathing difficulties, exercise intolerance, excessive bleeding from wounds, diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss and seizures. The first I was aware of this parasite in one of my dogs was from her coughing and gagging which was gradually getting worse and she would wake me up with her coughing. At first, I wondered if she had something caught in her throat but the cough became more persistent. Since she was a young Cavalier it ruled out CHF and since none of the other dogs were coughing Kennel Cough was also ruled out. 

Diagnosing lungworm is difficult as there is no test like there is for heartworm. Though the worms may be found in feces or the trachea of your dog the absence of the visible worms does not mean your dog doesn’t have lungworm. Usually diagnosis is made by history, clinical symptoms and the reaction to treatment. 

Yes, you pretty much know if your dog had lungworm within an hour or so of being treated because they will have some major coughing fits as the worms die and the dog expels the worm carcasses from their lungs. It is actually a bit scary and even I was on the phone to my vet in a panic! 

The good news is that it is actually easy to treat with a worming medicine containing fenbendazole or Milbemycin Oxime (found in the once a month preventative Sentinel). You do have to worry about re-occurrence as those slugs and snails are still out there. And please don’t use slug bait anywhere near your pets or wildlife as it is deadly. You’ll just have to pick up the slugs before letting the dogs out into the yard. 

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