Tapeworms in Dogs and Cats
Tapeworms get their name from the way they look, which is long and flat, like scotch tape or packing tape but much much smaller. There are several different types of tapeworms and some are species-specific, meaning they only infect dogs or cats and not both. Tapeworms infect many mammals including humans, but here we will focus on those infecting dogs and cats.
What are tapeworms?
We will focus on 2 types of tapeworms that infect dogs and cats, known as Taenia species and the common tapeworm, Dipylidium caninum species.
Adult Dipylidium caninum tapeworms live in the small intestine of the dog or cat where they absorb nutrients and occasionally drop egg sacs off the end of their tail. While disgusting to see and think about tapeworms living inside your dog or cat, it generally does not hurt its host.
The tapeworm grows to about 6 inches or more in length in the intestines. We often only see the small dried egg sac segments which are about the size of a sesame seed or grain of rice found under the tail, around the rectum, or in the pet’s feces (stool). Owners will notice both types of tapeworms in the same areas and in their pet’s stool.
When the egg sac segments are first eliminated or fresh, they often move from flat to elongated shapes. Once dry, they look like a sesame seed or grain of rice.
How do dogs and cats get tapeworms?
The lifecycle of the tapeworm, Dipylidium caninum, includes the primary host which is the dog or cat, and the intermediate host which is the flea. Owners often ask if they can get tapeworms from their pet and the answer is only if they ingest or eat fleas!
When dogs or cats swallow a flea that is carrying a larval (or immature) tapeworm during normal grooming, the body of the flea is digested away, releasing a tiny tapeworm. This tiny tapeworm then attaches itself to its host’s intestine and grows into an adult or mature tapeworm.
The tapeworm is made up of segments. The segments at the tail end, which is a sac of tapeworm eggs, will drop off to be passed in the stool. These eggs are eventually eaten by the immature flea larva. Once the flea larva becomes an adult flea it can infect its host (dog or cat) when the host eats or ingests the flea.
The Taenia type of tapeworm infects dogs and cats when they eat raw meat such as catching and eating mice, rabbits, and other small mammals or when owners feed their pets a raw diet.
For more information on feeding your pets a raw diet, check out these links:
Taenia tapeworm has a very similar lifecycle to the Dipylidium tapeworm. However, the intermediate host (which unknowingly swallows the tapeworm egg when it is shed by the dog or cat), includes mammals such as mice, rabbits, deer, sheep, etc. instead of fleas. When the intermediate host dies and the dog or cat eats the tapeworm-infected raw carcass, tapeworms mature in the dog or cat in about 2 months, completing the lifecycle which begins again.
Symptoms of Tapeworm Infection in Dogs and Cats
Dogs and cats with tapeworms usually don’t have any noticeable signs or symptoms. High-performance dogs who need every calorie and nutrient to work at their peak performance level may be affected and show a decrease in their ability to perform due to tapeworm infection.
What owners will notice is small tapeworm segments under the tail, around the rectum, and in the feces. Tapeworm segments initially will move, going from long to wide and flat, no bigger than a grain of rice. Once dried, they look like a sesame seed.
The tapeworm seen most often is Dipylidium caninum, earning its reputation as the common tapeworm.
Diagnosing Tapeworms in Dogs and Cats
Pets are often diagnosed as positive for having tapeworms when flat segments or sesame seed-looking eggs are seen under the tail, around the rectum, or in the stool. Segments can be attached to each other, which owners may describe as being larger than a grain of rice. Tapeworms periodically release the egg packets which means that you don’t always see the egg sacs in your pet’s stool. For this reason, the stool test performed by many veterinarians will often miss tapeworm eggs.
How important is diagnosing the specific type of tapeworm? To prevent reinfection of tapeworms we must know if we need to treat a pet for fleas, stop feeding a raw food diet, or limit a pet’s access to hunting for prey.
Treatment for Tapeworm Infections in Dogs and Cats
There are several prescription deworming medications effective against different tapeworms. Some can be given by injection, while others are topical or oral (pill, liquid, or powder forms).
One specific prescription medication called praziquantel kills both types of tapeworms efficiently.
Once you have given the deworming medication prescribed by your vet, they can get tapeworms again. It takes 3 weeks to 2 months from the time your pet swallows a flea or ingests infected raw meat to begin to see tapeworm segments on your pet's fur under the tail or in their stool.
Preventing Tapeworm Infection in Dogs and Cats
Pets who avidly hunt small wildlife such as moles, mice, and rats will become infected with tapeworms regularly. Talk to your vet about a regular tapeworm deworming treatment plan.
Dogs and cats with fleas will likewise become infected with tapeworms regularly. Owners will blame the deworming medication as ineffective when it is likely that their pet has an ongoing flea problem in their home environment. To get rid of the flea tapeworm, Dipylidium caninum, owners must tackle and aggressively control the flea problem in their pet’s environment which includes both indoors and outside.
If your pet’s environment has fleas you should prepare to treat the area where your pet lives (indoor and out), your pet, and any other pets you have, aggressively for fleas for at least 3 months to get fleas under control. This can be challenging, especially if pets have a large outdoor space to explore with wildlife contributing to the flea problem.
Expect that you can never completely eliminate fleas due to wildlife and other animals that roam through your pet’s outdoor environment. However, you want to control the fleas on your pet and in their environment to prevent an infestation. Fleas carry other diseases transmissible to your pets and can cause skin problems such as Flea Allergy Dermatitis or Feline Miliary Dermatitis.
Have you noticed tapeworm segments on your pet’s fur, under their tail, or in their stool? Contact your primary vet for a tapeworm treatment plan.
Transmission of Tapeworms from Pets to People
A tapeworm called Echinococcus can be dangerous to people through contact with dog stool. Microscopically, Taenia eggs and Echinococcus eggs look alike or identical. If your dog is suspected of having Taenia tapeworms, more advanced testing is recommended, such as sending a stool sample to the lab for an accurate diagnosis. Always practice good hygiene when handling your pet, picking up their stool, and bathing. Wash their bedding frequently using detergent and hot water.
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