Tapeworms (Diplydium caninum, Taenia) are an intestinal parasite that can affect both dogs and cats. Similar to hookworms, tapeworms feed by attaching to the lining of the small intestine. Tapeworms are long, flattened, segmented worms that can be seen with the naked eye as adults can reach lengths of up to eight inches. Entire worms are seldom seen as it is much more common for small segments of the worm (proglottids) to break off and pass through the intestines into your pet’s feces. These segments often look similar to grains of rice and can be seen in the stool or around the anus of an infected animal.
Because tapeworms do not usually cause problems in adult dogs and cats symptoms of infection are relatively mild. Some pets will scoot their anus along the ground due to irritation caused by the tapeworm segments. Unusually large infestations or infestations in small or debilitated puppies and kittens can cause weight loss, poor hair coat, lack of growth, anemia and even intestinal blockage. Most owners do not realize that their pet has tapeworms until they see the proglottids in the feces or their pet vomits up a worm.
Unlike hookworms and roundworms your pet can not contract tapeworms by eating fertilized tapeworm eggs. In order for a dog or cat to contract tapeworms they must ingest fleas or rodents that have ingested tapeworm eggs. Tapeworm eggs are ingested by immature flea larvae and mature within the flea as it grows. The flea can then be directly ingested by your pet during grooming. A less common form of tapeworms can be contracted by hunting rodents.
Tapeworms are usually diagnosed via the presence of proglottids in the feces or around the anus of the animal. Because tapeworm eggs are only shed intermittently they are seldom seen using the regular method of fecal flotation that issued for diagnosing other intestinal parasites.
Treatment for tapeworms is usually one dose of a deworming medication in tablet form. The dewormer causes the death of the adult worms, which is then digested in the intestines. Vomiting and diarrhea after treatment are not usually reported.
In order to prevent tapeworm infestations it is critical to maintain a flea-free household. There are a great variety of products that are both safe for your dog and cat and effective and controlling fleas. If fleas are already present in the home all animals should be treated for at least three consecutive months. Additionally the home and environment may need treatment with a fogger or area spray as well as thorough vacuuming and washing all bedding in very hot water. If any fleas are still present in the environment reinfection with tapeworms can occur within a few weeks.
Tapeworm infection in people is extremely rare but can be possible. In most cases a person must ingest a flea in order to become infected with tapeworms. Other less common species of tapeworm can be contracted through ingestion of fertilized tapeworm eggs.