A parasite recently arrived in Ontario that can kill dogs and humans will be the subject of a new study by University of Guelph researchers.

Andrew Peregrine and Claire Jardine, both professors in the Ontario Veterinary College’s Department of Pathobiology, and master’s student Jonathon Kotwa are investigating Echinococcus multilocularis.

andrew peregrine
Andrew Peregrine

Known as the fox tapeworm, it’s found in the intestines of foxes and coyotes, and also affects small rodents such as voles and mice. Dogs can ingest the tapeworm’s eggs by eating animal feces.

“Prior to 2012, it had never been seen in the province,” Peregrine said. “But since that time, four dogs across southern Ontario have been diagnosed, including one in Guelph.”

When large numbers of eggs are ingested, they hatch inside the animal and the larvae migrate to the liver, forming a cyst-like mass that behaves like a tumour. It sometimes spreads to other organs, and can be fatal. The clinical incubation period in dogs is believed to be a minimum of six months to a year.

Although no human cases have been seen in Ontario, people can pick up the parasite by failing to wash their hands after touching infected dogs or their feces, Peregrine said.

“In people, it’s possible that the clinical incubation period could be five to 15 years, which is why it’s a concern – it takes so long for people to show signs that they are sick,” he said.

Kotwa said the prevalence of the parasite in Ontario is unknown.

“Is it all across southern Ontario or are there hot spots? And what are the risk factors associated with wildlife getting the infection? Those are types of questions we hope to answer,” he said.

The researchers will analyze coyote and fox fecal samples from across Ontario for two years. They will also be tracking geographical location, and health, age and sex of the animals.

“At the end of the day, we want to put together a risk map for infection,” Peregrine said.

No vaccine exists for the disease, and preventive medication is expensive. “The risk map we develop will also help us provide advice to veterinarians and pet owners regarding preventive treatment. It will also be of value to the public health community.”

Prof. Andrew Peregrine
Department of Pathobiology
519 824-4120, Ext. 54714