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Printable Form | Symptoms | Getting rid of Them

What is Tapeworm?
by Dr. N.J.Hayes, DVM

There are several sub-species of tapeworm. Dipylidium caninum, Echinococcus spp., and Mesocestoides will attack both dogs and cats. Taeniid pisiformis attacks dogs and t. taeniaeformis mainly bothers cats. The tapeworm is of major concern because it is zoonotic. This means that humans can also get tapeworm.

Tapeworm is one of several internal parasites of puppies, kittens, dogs and cats. Some others are coccidia, | roundworm, | whipworm, and hookworm.

This worm received its name - tapeworm - because the segments look like tiny pieces of tape that are about the size and color of a grain of rice. Under a microscope, they are actually flattened barrels, with the segments longer than they are wide. The anterior end has a scolex, (head), with a retractible, rodlike structure with hooks, and suckers without hooks. The adults may be 6 or more inches long.

How does my pet get tapeworm and what is its life-cycle?

The tapeworm, Dipylidium caninum, is common in wild foxes and coyotes. They shed the tapeworm eggs in their feces, which then contaminate the local environment and are eaten by fleas and passed on to our pets.

Taeniids infect rabbits and other small rodents, which pass the tapeworm on to dogs and cats during predation or when they eat droppings. This, however, is not the usual method of infection. Dogs and cats commonly become infected with tapeworm by unknowningly swallowing infected fleas while grooming themselves. Other tapeworms are passed on during predation of small mammals, birds and reptiles.

fleas eat tapeworm eggsAs the young fleas are scrounging for food, they eat "tapeworm eggs". The eggs contain tapeworm embryos. After being eaten the "eggshell" dissolves, releasing the eggs, which remain alive in the flea. When the flea jumps on the dog or cat, it's licked or bitten and swallowed. The flea is digested in the stomach and releases the embryo. The young tapeworm moves along the digestive tract to the intestine to live.

After reaching the intestine, the young tapeworm hooks itself to the intestinal wall by a circular structure called a rostellum that resembles a sunflower head. Within the rostellum is a retractible, rodlike structure with 6 rows of hooks, (teeth), and four suckers without hooks. At this point, the tapeworm "baby" is only a head with teeth and a neck. After fastening on, it begins to grow segments from its neck.

drawing of a tapeworm Each tapeworm is basically a head, (scolex), with a "mouth", a neck and a tail. As long as the head and neck are intact, the worm can live. Each piece of the tail, however, is a separate body with its own digestive system and reproductive tract. It absorbs nutrients through its skin and the oldest segments are slowly replaced by new pieces growing from the neck. As it's pushed further from the neck it slowly disintegrates and becomes just a reproductive organ containing a packet of eggs, finally dropping off. If a pet is heavily parasitized, it may lose weight. They mature in about a month, and start shedding segments containing egg packets to start the process over.

The segment - or segments - break off, pass along with the feces, and are expelled into the environment. Some of the segments, which can still move a little, may wiggle out of the anus while the pet is sleeping and attach to the hair around the anus, but most end up on the ground - or in the pets' bedding.

As the segments are exposed to outside air, they dry out and lose the ability to move. The segments and packets finally break open in the environment and release the eggs, which can survive for months while waiting for a flea or mouse to eat them.

The scolex is present in the tapeworm even when it's an embryo, a fraction of a millimeter long, within the egg packet. Each egg packet holds 5 to 30 eggs - each with its egg-shaped embryo containing a cavity with an inverted scolex with 6 hooks. (This little bugger is "born to eat".)

drawing of tapeworm life cycleThe segments look like small grains of rice in the fur and on the ground until they dry out and become like sesame seeds.

Your pet can't become infected without an intermediary host. It's necessary for the tapeworm larvae to spend time in the flea or rabbit while it matures enough to infect your pet. Good flea control should eliminate most of your concerns about tapeworm parasitization. You should also discourage your pets from catching and eating rabbits.

How do I know if my pet is infected? Are there symptoms?

The egg cases are so small that they're difficult to see without magnification. Most owners have no idea that their pets are infected until their veterinarian tells them after an exam. They are seldom seen during a fecal check and more often they are in the fur or on the ground. You may notice the "grains of wiggling rice" on the fur around your pet's anus. Remember that each case may contain up to 30 individual embryos, which will be too small for you to see once the case has disintegrated and released them.

If you see what you think are tapeworm segments on your pet, put them in a sealed container and take them to your vet. (Try using a piece of tape pressed to the fur to pick them up.) It's a good idea to clean all pet bedding regularly to discourage fleas from setting up shop in it.

Sometimes maggots, (the larvae form of flys), are mistaken for tapeworm. They are usually not seen on freshly passed stool, but are also a severe problem for puppies and infirm pets.

Tapeworms don't seem to cause clinical problems in healthy dogs. The usual symptoms are weight loss, scooting, abdominal cramping or less than usual performance. They are quite serious in puppies or the elderly and infirm pets.

They are also a very real concern for humans, as they can cause serious liver disease. Because tapeworm is considered serious, it's important to be sure that your dogs and cats are tested yearly. There is a blood test available for humans, but not for pets.

How do you get rid of them?

If your pet is on heartworm preventative and you treat regularly for fleas, you probably don't have a problem. There are medications that are very safe and effective for riding pets of tapeworm.

Your veterinarian may recommend two treatments, three weeks apart to give you time to get rid of the fleas in your yard and home and prevent reinfection. If one of your pets has tapeworm, you will probably be advised to treat all of them. Once the worms are dead, they are digested in the colon and don't pass in the stool.

References:

  • Ivens, Virginia R.DVM, Mark, Daniel L. DVM, Levine, Norman D. Principal Parasites of Domestic Animals in the United States,Special Publication 52, Colleges of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Stone, Jennifer, Information Spec.,The Tapeworm:An Unusual Intestinal Parasite, Pet Column for the week of Aug. 13, 2001 Office of Public Engagement, University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine
  • Center for Disease Control, website, Guidelines for Veterinarians: Prevention of Zoonotic Transmission of Ascarids and Hookworms of Dogs and Cats
  • http://www.VeterinaryPartner.com The Pet Health Care Library, Tapeworms
  • Tilly, Larry.P.DVM, Smith, Francis Jr.DVM, The 5 Minute Veterinary Consult Canine and Feline,Williams & Wilkins, 1997

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