Why your dog could be coughing: 5 facts about P.E.I.'s fox lungworm

The Island is one of the most common places in the world for fox lungworm. Here's what you should know.

P.E.I. has 'ideal' conditions for fox lungworm

About three per cent of dogs on P.E.I. have fox lungworm. (Shutterstock)

If you notice your dog coughing a lot, there's a chance it has fox lungworm.

Almost 30 per cent of dogs on P.E.I. that are treated for chronic cough end up with the diagnosis, says Gary Conboy, professor of parasitology in the department of pathology and microbiology at the Atlantic Veterinary College.

But dog owners shouldn't be too concerned if their dog has fox lungworm, he said. It's easily treatable, and much less dangerous than diseases with similar symptoms, such as asthma or cancer.

Here are some facts dog owners should know about fox lungworm.

1.They love life on P.E.I.

The Island is one of the most common places in the world for fox lungworm, Conboy says.

"When it comes to a large red fox population, an abundance of land snails and slugs, moderate temperature and high rainfall, you can't offer more to this parasite than we have here in Atlantic Canada. They are ideal conditions."

More than 80 per cent of the foxes on P.E.I. have it, and about three per cent of Island dogs, he says.

2.Dogs may get it by licking grass

The lungworm is found in fox feces. Land snails and slugs feeding on the feces acquire the larval stages and they develop into the infective stage of the parasite. Dogs can be infected by eating the slugs, or even possibly by licking the grass if the slug has shed the larvae nearby, Conboy says.

"Dogs can be infected by eating the slugs.  Recent evidence suggests dogs may also become infected by licking if grass if the slug has shed the larvae nearby," Conboy said. 

"Some of the slugs we have around here are fairly small. And so you could eat it by accident without ever knowing it was in the grass you were licking."

3.Coughing is the most obvious symptom

The coughing can be so severe that dogs may show signs of gagging, Conboy says.

"We've actually had some cases where they were brought to their veterinarian because they were afraid the dog had some obstruction in their throat."

Conboy says the worm can live about 10 months before it dies of "old age." The dog will cough until the worms die or until it gets treatment.

4.It's easily treated

There are three common safe dewormers that are very effective against the lungworm, Conboy says.

"In some dogs the cough gets much worse for the next two days but then after that they steadily improve and within seven to 10 days the dog should be cured."

Conboy says he's never heard of a dog dying from fox lungworm.

An adult female fox lungworm, left, and male lungworm. The worms are about five to 10 millimetres in length. (Submitted by Gary Conboy)

5.The French heartworm is a bigger concern

The French heartworm has some similarities to the fox lungworm. It's also a parasite of the red fox and is transmitted by slugs. Except this one can be fatal to dogs.

The French heartworm has not been found on P.E.I., but Conboy says it's only a matter of time.

There have been cases in Newfoundland, and Conboy says the parasite has shown "a remarkable knack for spreading to new regions."

"I guess the big concern for us is it could establish itself here and once it does it's going to be quite an important medical threat to our dogs."

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