When common parasites of dogs and cats infect humans, the illness is called toxocariasis (or visceral larva migrans). Toxocariasis usually affects kids under age 10. Especially at risk are those who like to put things in their mouths, or kids whose families have pet dogs or cats.
Signs and Symptoms
Many kids won’t have symptoms, but if they do, they can include fever, cough or wheezing, abdominal pain, enlarged liver or spleen, poor appetite, a rash that sometimes looks like hives, and enlarged lymph nodes (“swollen glands”).
Toxocariasis also may affect the eyes, causing decreased vision, swelling around the eyes, or a cross-eyed appearance. Untreated toxocariasis can cause damage to the retina (the part at the back of the eye that senses light).
Most cases go undiagnosed and do not cause problems. Some toxocariasis cases are diagnosed during a routine eye exam or an X-ray study done for some other reason.
Toxocariasis is an infection caused by the larvae of parasitic worms — Toxocara canis and Toxocara cati — that usually live in the intestines of dogs and cats. Eggs from the worms pass into the feces of dogs and cats and can contaminate pet areas around the home where kids play. The eggs can be swallowed by children, especially those who like to put things in their mouths and don’t often wash their hands.
After entering the body, the eggs hatch into larvae that penetrate through walls of the digestive tract and may migrate to a child’s liver, lungs, eyes, and elsewhere.
Toxocariasis usually happens in young children ages 2 to 7, but can happen at any age. It can’t be spread from person to person.
To help prevent kids from being exposed to toxocariasis:
- keep them away from areas where dogs or cats play
- teach your kids to wash their hands often, especially after playing with a pet dog or cat (wash a toddler’s hands yourself)
- discourage toddlers from putting dirty hands in their mouth
- keep pets away from the sandbox and cover the sandbox when it’s not being used
- take household pets to the veterinarian to be dewormed, especially puppies younger than 6 months old
- make sure your kids don’t accidentally eat dirt or soil
Diagnosis and Treatment
A doctor can usually diagnose a case of toxocariasis by physical exam and blood tests. Doctors may not prescribe any medication to treat a child with mild symptoms. Severe toxocariasis involving the lungs, eye, or other important organs may be treated with antiparasitic drugs to kill the larvae. For severe toxocariasis, doctors sometimes also prescribe steroids or might refer a person to a specialist (like an ophthalmologist if the eye is involved).
A child with severe toxocariasis should be given medicine as prescribed by your doctor. Prevent reinfection by deworming your pets and keeping kids away from areas where pets defecate (poop). Remind your kids to wash their hands often during the day, especially after playing with pets.
When to Call the Doctor
Call your doctor if your child has any of the symptoms of toxocariasis, including:
- cough or wheezing
- abdominal pain
- poor appetite
- vision problems
Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: August 2014