I was flicking through an old magazine the other day and was reading an article about a beautiful garden and how the owners kept it looking so good. At night, they would creep out with their Springer spaniel catching snails and slugs and the dog would crunch up to 200 snails a night to keep the little nibblers off the plants.
Oh, how times have changed! Whereas, in the past this would just be disgusting now it fills me with horror that they could be putting their dog at risk of disease and death due to lungworm infection.
Angiostrongylus vasorum is the Latin name for a nasty little worm that is gradually spreading through the UK.
Originally starting in the South West and Wales, the parasite is moving east and north and infections are now appearing in Lincolnshire.
The parasite lives in the heart and the blood vessels of the lungs of dogs where it lays eggs that hatch into larvae. These are coughed up and swallowed by the dog, pass through the digestive tract and out into the world in the dog’s faeces. The larvae are eaten by slugs and snails in the contaminated environment which are in turn eaten by dogs (and foxes) and so the cycle begins again. Dogs may eat the snails because they enjoy them (yuck) but more often it is because they eat grass that have small snails attached to it. Younger dogs tend to be more frequently infected, but this is probably due to their inquisitive natures.
When a dog is infected the most common symptoms are breathlessness, coughing and exercise intolerance as the worms are irritant within the blood vessels and lungs cause a large amount of damage as they move and migrate. Occasionally, the worms can interfere with the blood clotting mechanisms and dogs can suffer from bleeding problems. They can also affect the nervous system and have been known to cause fitting in dogs.
Diagnosis is dependent on identifying the presence of the lungworm. Faecal samples can show the larvae and X-rays and endoscopy can help view the worm in the body or at least the damage they do. Blood tests may also be required.
Treatment can work but sadly some dogs do die of this condition, so prevention is always best. There are now effective parasiticides such as monthly spot-ons or worming tablets only available from your vet so discuss the best option for your dog with us, especially if it is a keen grass eater. Poo-picking straight away can reduce the larval population in the environment and keeping food and water bowls inside reduces the chance of slug and snail ingestion. A word of warning though, slug pellets containing metaldehyde are extremely poisonous to dogs and wildlife. They are not very effective at reducing slug populations and are due to be banned in 2020 by the Government because of the toxic effects so please avoid these at all costs.