Flatworm That Originated in Western Rivers Threatens Dogs

In the tranquil waters of California’s rivers, a silent predator has emerged, posing an unforeseen threat to the state’s canine population. The discovery of the ‘Dog-Killing Flatworm’, scientifically known as Heterobilharzia americana, has sent shockwaves through the pet-owning community and beyond.

This flatworm, previously confined to the Gulf Coast states such as Texas, has now found its way into the heart of California, bringing with it a slew of dangers for our furry companions.

The flatworm causes canine schistosomiasis, attacking dogs' liver and intestines.

Photo: Pexels
The flatworm causes canine schistosomiasis, attacking dogs’ liver and intestines.

Urgent Warning for Pet Owners

Researchers from the University of California, Riverside, have sounded the alarm, urging pet owners to exercise caution. The flatworm, transmitted by snails, is capable of surviving in water for up to 24 hours before finding a host. Once attached, it initiates a cycle of infection that can lead to canine schistosomiasis, affecting the liver and intestines of dogs.

“Dogs can die from this infection, so we are hoping to raise public awareness that it’s there,” Adler Dillman, a nematology professor at UCR told People. “If you’re swimming in the Colorado River with them, your pets are in peril.”

Infected dogs may suffer from loss of appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Photo: Pexels
Infected dogs may suffer from loss of appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea.

The team led by Dillman embarked on a research expedition in Blythe, a town near Joshua Tree National Park in Riverside County. As SFGate reports, they observed sick canines that had spent time playing in the rivers.

The investigation led to the collection of over 2,000 snails, among which they identified two species actively shedding the deadly worm. This finding not only underscored the presence of H. americana but also revealed the existence of these snail species in the area for the first time.

Severe cases can lead to profound weight loss and liver disease in dogs.

Photo: Pexels
Severe cases can lead to profound weight loss and liver disease in dogs.

Wider Impact on Wildlife

The impact of this parasite extends beyond dogs, affecting a wide range of mammals including raccoons, marsh rabbits, horses, nutria, bobcats, mountain lions, and opossums. According to the New York Post, the flatworm’s lifecycle culminates in the veins of the intestinal lining where it develops into an adult and reproduces.

The real danger, however, lies in the eggs that travel to vital organs such as the lungs, spleen, liver, and heart, causing organ tissues to cease functioning due to the formation of granulomas – hard clusters of immune cells.

The flatworm is transmitted by snails and can survive in water for up to 24 hours.

Photo: Pexels
The flatworm is transmitted by snails and can survive in water for up to 24 hours.

Recognizing Infection Symptoms

Infected animals typically exhibit symptoms like loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, significant weight loss, and signs of liver disease.

Emily Beeler, a veterinarian with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, advises pet owners whose dogs have swum in the Colorado River and exhibit these symptoms to consult a veterinarian immediately.

“it’s a good precaution to ask your veterinarian for a simple fecal test,” Beeler said.

Humans can experience swimmer's itch if exposed, but the parasite cannot infect them.

Photo: Pexels
Humans can experience swimmer’s itch if exposed, but the parasite cannot infect them.

While this parasite presents a significant health risk to animals, it’s crucial to note that humans are not susceptible to the same level of infection. The worst-case scenario for human interaction with the flatworm is ‘swimmer’s itch’, a red rash caused by the parasite penetrating the skin, which is non-infectious and generally does not require medical intervention, according to The Sacramento Bee.

Further research is necessary to understand the full extent of the parasite’s infestation and its potential to spread throughout California. As well, an exploration of its impact on the biodiversity of wildlife along the river.

As the warmer months approach, pet owners are urged to exercise caution and remain vigilant to protect their beloved companions from this lurking danger.

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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, spending time with his daughters, and coffee.
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