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Professional Version

Parafilaria Infection in Animals


Richard W. Gerhold, Jr.

, DVM, PhD, Department of Biomedical and Diagnostic Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Tennessee

Reviewed/Revised Sep 2019 | Modified Oct 2022

Parafilaria infection of horses and cattle occurs outside North America and consists of subcutaneous and intramuscular parasites causing bleeding. Examination of blood can show parasite eggs and microfilariae. Treatment and prevention consists of anthelmintics and fly control.

Parafilaria bovicola

Parafilaria bovicola, a filarial parasite of cattle, causes subcutaneous lesions that resemble bruising. It also has been reported in water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). The worm is whitish; adult females are 50–65 mm long, and males are 30–35 mm. It is found in Asia (Philippines, Japan, Russia, Pakistan, India), Europe (Bulgaria, Romania, France, Sweden), and Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, Rwanda, Burundi, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe). A specimen was recovered in Canada from a bull imported from France, but P bovicola does not appear to have established itself on the American continents and has not been reported from Australia.

Parafilaria infection has been identified as a source of considerable economic loss to the beef industries of South Africa and Sweden, despite their climatic differences. It is found primarily in range cattle in the savanna areas of southern Africa, whereas in Sweden it has emerged as a problem in cattle following spring turnout to pasture after winter housing.

Clinical Findings of Parafilaria Infection in Animals

The only external signs of Parafilaria infection in cattle are focal cutaneous hemorrhages (“bleeding spots”) that may ooze for some hours before clotting and drying in the matted hair of the coat. Bleeding spots are induced by the female worm, which causes the formation of a small nodule, perforates the skin, and oviposits in the blood dripping from the central wound. The tiny eggs contain the first larval stage (microfilariae) of the parasite. In both the northern and southern hemispheres, bleeding spots are markedly seasonal, being most common in spring and early summer. Most bleeding spots occur along the dorsum of the animal, particularly in the forequarters.

The invertebrate hosts are face flies of the genus Musca (subgenus Eumusca), which ingest the eggs when feeding at the bleeding spots. M autumnalis has been identified as a host in Sweden, M lusoria and M xanthomelas in South Africa, and M vitripennis in Asia. Development to infective third-stage larvae in the fly takes 10–12 days. Transmission to cattle probably occurs when the flies feed on wounds, Parafilaria bleeding spots, or ocular secretions.

Because of seasonal bleeding and the cutaneous nodules, severe infections of P bovicola have been reported to impair the productivity of working bullocks in India; however, the major importance of Parafilaria in beef-producing countries is damage to the subcutaneous tissues. Carcasses of infected animals display irregular, edematous, greenish yellow lesions that resemble bruising. These are usually superficial, but occasionally underlying muscles are extensively involved. Lesions are most severe during the spring and summer.

Trimmed carcasses are often seriously disfigured and consequently downgraded. In severe cases, the carcass may be condemned. Lesions are more common and severe in bulls than in steers, which in turn are less severely affected than female animals.

Diagnosis of Parafilaria Infection in Animals

  • Examination of blood from dermal lesions for parasite eggs and microfilariae

  • Histology to identify nematodes or ELISA

The seasonal bleeding spots are sometimes confused with those caused by thorns, wire, ticks, or biting insects. For differentiation, either fresh or dried blood should be mixed with water in a test tube and centrifuged. The characteristic eggs are found on microscopic examination of the sediment.

Carcass lesions can be differentiated from bruising by the presence of numerous eosinophils in Giemsa-stained impression smears made from the lesions. In addition, affected tissue has a characteristic, disagreeable, metallic smell.

Usually, only small numbers of worms are present in affected carcasses and are often difficult to find because of their color and the accompanying inflammatory reaction. Affected tissues can be incubated in warm saline to facilitate the recovery of parasites. An ELISA for the detection of antibodies against P bovicola is available.

Treatment and Prevention of Parafilaria Infection in Animals

  • Ivermectin

  • Prevention aimed at fly control

Ivermectin (200 mcg/kg) or nitroxynil (20 mg/kg) given SC reduces the number and surface area of Parafilaria lesions. Animals should be treated at least 70–90 days before slaughter to provide sufficient time for lesions to resolve. The treatment-to-slaughter interval should not be >120 days, because unaffected larval forms of the parasite may induce fresh lesions as they mature.

In trials in Sweden, use of pyrethroid-impregnated ear tags gave good control of flies and reduced parafilarial lesions at slaughter by 75%. Ear tagging all cattle in an area resulted in total control of the parasite. The use of residually active, synthetic pyrethroid dips has also effectively reduced transmission.

It may be possible to screen imported animals with an ELISA to prevent spread of the disease to unaffected countries or, in conjunction with residual insecticides and effective anthelmintics, to eradicate new foci of infection.

Key Points

  • Parafilaria-associated dermatitis and bleeding is due to a skin-associated nematode.

  • The disease is seen in summer or fall and consists of oozing blood from skin lesions.

  • Treatment with anthelmintics and fly control are the primary methods to reduce clinical disease.

Parafilaria multipapillosa

P multipapillosa is found in the subcutaneous tissues of horses in various parts of the world; it is especially common in the Russian steppes and eastern Europe. It is similar in size, appearance, life cycle, and development to P bovicola. Bloodsucking Haematobia spp are thought to be the invertebrate hosts.

In spring and summer, the parasite causes skin nodules, particularly on the head and upper forequarters. These bleed transiently but often profusely (“summer bleeding”) and then resolve; other hemorrhaging nodules develop as the parasite moves to a different site. Occasionally, the nodules suppurate. The nodules and bleeding are unsightly and interfere with harnesses of working horses but generally are of little consequence. The clinical signs are pathognomonic.

No satisfactory treatment has been reported, but fly control may reduce the incidence.

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