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Stop Letting Your Dog Swim in Ponds, Rivers, and Lakes!

What’s So Dangerous About Ponds, Rivers, and Lakes?

Many dog owners enjoy taking their dogs out for a swim in ponds, rivers, and lakes. What’s not to love, right? It’s a fun and inexpensive way to spend time with your furry friend.

Plus, swimming is a great form of exercise and recreational activity. However, as wonderful as it is to take your pet for a dip in clear, cool waters, especially during warmer seasons, there may be something scary lurking just beneath the surface: a flatworm that causes an infection known as bilharziasis.


What’s Bilharziasis?

Bilharziasis, also known as schistosomiasis, is an infection caused by the flatworm Heterobilharzia americana, which is carried around by freshwater snails and raccoons. However, deer, minks, coyotes, opossums, and beavers are also known hosts.

H. Americana can infect any dog and spread to various locations, but canines that regularly swim in freshwater (rivers, ponds, lakes, streams) are more at risk. Mainly found in the Southeastern United States, these flatworms are notorious for causing incredibly debilitating, if not fatal, effects to both pets and humans.


How Can My Dog Get Bilharziasis?

Freshwater snails, or any other animal that carries H. Americana, can contaminate bodies of fresh water, or even just standing pools of water when they come into contact with it. If your dog swims in or drinks water from these water sources the flatworms can get into their system either by penetrating the skin or entering the mouth.


How Do I Know If My Dog Has Bilharziasis?

Since there are no specific signs of bilharziasis and the infection often displays itself in a different way per animal, it’s usually confused with other illnesses.

Generally, dogs that contract bilharziasis experience gastrointestinal problems, such as bloody diarrhea, excessive salivation, increased thirst, loss of appetite, and dehydration.

However, in combination with those symptoms, there may also be fever, cough, dermatitis (patches of red, itchy, inflamed skin), excessive weight loss, anemia, lethargy, and hypocalcemia (abnormally low levels of calcium).


How Is Bilharziasis Diagnosed?

To diagnose bilharziasis in dogs, an ultrasound or x-ray may initially be done to see if any damage has been done to the organs since the infection is known to cause specific internal issues. If the intestinal tract is thicker than normal or the liver, spleen, and lymph nodes appear to be enlarged, H. Americana could very well be the culprit. For confirmation, veterinarians normally ask for a fecal sample from the infected dog to use in a direct saline smear test.


How Is Bilharziasis Treated?

Unfortunately, most infected dogs will have already developed severe medical problems, like painful skin lesions or cystic fibrosis (a condition where the body produces thick mucus that blocks the lungs and pancreas), before symptoms begin to appear.

The complexity of the diagnosis, as well as the time it takes for the lab results to come out, can also delay treatment. However, with the right medications and treatment regimen, most dogs are able to make a full recovery.

The anti-worm medication praziquantel is considered the drug of choice for bilharziasis, but it’s usually combined with fenbendazole, another anti-worm medication, to increase effectivity. Praziquantel is given three times a day for 2 days, and fenbendazole once a day for 7 days.


How Can Bilharziasis Be Prevented?

Since there are no vaccines or preventative medications to protect dogs from contracting bilharziasis, the best form of prevention is to refrain from letting your canine companion swim in freshwater. You should also make sure that they don’t drink from standing pools of water on the ground or inside containers.

For your pet’s safety, always keep a portable pet water bottle with you whenever you bring them on outdoor adventures. You can view some of the most top-rated ones here!

If swimming is an activity that you can’t go without, then the beach or other bodies of saltwater, is a better option. Unlike freshwater, saltwater has antibacterial properties that make it uninhabitable to most harmful pathogens. So the next time you and your pooch next to cool off, go ahead and hit the beach!


Do you take your dog swimming? Where do you usually go?

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