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Tapeworms are nasty parasites that set up shop in the intestinal tract. A dog or cat usually gets a tapeworm by accidentally eating a flea that carries the tapeworm larvae. Often, there are no symptoms per se, and an owner usually discovers that his or her pet has a tapeworm upon seeing a segment of the worm, which looks like a grain of rice, in the pet’s poop. Rarely does this common tapeworm make a pet sick, but it’s not a good idea to ignore it. Fortunately, ridding a pet of a tapeworms is easy; a dose of an antiparasite medication usually does the trick.
Tapeworms are long, flat, parasitic worms that live in the intestines of dogs and cats. Several species of tapeworms can infect pets but by far the most common offender is the tapeworm known in scientific circles as Dipylidium caninum. Other tapeworms, such as those classified under the genus Taenia, can also affect pets.
Tapeworms have a head that attaches to the intestinal wall and a series of segments, called proglottids, that make up the worm’s body. An adult tapeworm can reach six inches or more in length and has the appearance of a white piece of tape or ribbon.
Tapeworms don’t cause clinical signs in many pets. Apart from the hygiene problem caused by a bunch of little rice-like tapeworm segments exiting your dog or cat’s backside, these parasites seem to do little harm.
Tapeworm segments detach from the end of the adult tapeworm and are shed in the pet’s feces. Each segment contains numerous tapeworm eggs. Once in the environment, the segments break open, releasing the eggs, which eventually develop into tapeworm larvae.
The most common tapeworm found in dogs and cats is associated with fleas. Developing flea larvae in the environment eat the tapeworm larvae, and pets become infected when they ingest an infected flea during grooming.
Human infections are rare and usually occur when people inadvertently consume an infected flea. Most cases involve children, and tapeworm segments may be found around the anus or in bowel movements.
Pets can become infected with tapeworms of the genus Taenia when they hunt and eat prey (such as a bird, rodent, or reptile) that has eaten the tapeworm larvae.
Dogs and cats generally don’t become sick from a tapeworm infection. Only very rarely has a large infestation been reported to cause weight loss or an intestinal blockage.
An owner may become aware that his or her pet has tapeworms by finding tapeworm segments stuck to the fur around the pet’s anus, in the pet’s bedding, or in the pet’s feces. When fresh, these segments are white or cream colored, can move, and look like grains of rice. As they dry, they look more like sesame seeds. Less commonly, pets may experience irritation or itchiness around the anus from passing the tapeworm segments.
Tapeworm eggs may be difficult to detect on a routine veterinary fecal exam. In most cases, the eggs are contained within the tapeworm segments, and unless the segments have broken open, they may not appear on a fecal exam. Infections are usually diagnosed by finding tapeworm segments around the pet’s anus or in the pet’s feces.
There is no breed predisposition for this extremely common condition.
Several medications are effective at eliminating tapeworm infections. At the same time, it is important to treat and control any flea infestation on the pet or in the environment. As long as the pet is exposed to fleas, he or she is likely to become reinfected with tapeworms.
Adopting an effective flea prevention strategy is an important way to help prevent your pet from becoming infected. Owners should also discourage pets from hunting and eating prey by keeping cats indoors and dogs on a leash when outside.
This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.
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