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Tapeworms are an intestinal parasite. Along with roundworm, hookworm, and whipworm, this flat, segmented worm is found in dogs, cats, humans, and many other species around the world. Here’s what you should know about tapeworms in dogs, including symptoms, diagnosis, and subsequent treatment.
How Do Dogs Get Tapeworms?
There is a cycle through which dogs get tapeworms:
- Unlike many other parasites that dogs get from exposure to an infected dog’s feces, dogs only become infected with tapeworms by ingesting a host that is harboring tapeworm eggs (most often an adult flea). There are a few ways a dog might ingest a flea, such as self-grooming, or grooming a canine or feline housemate. Other animals that can potentially transmit flea eggs include birds, rabbits, or rodents, which even a well-fed dog might eat.
- Once digested, the tapeworm eggs settle into your dog’s small intestine. There, the tapeworm will develop into an adult.
- The adult tapeworm is made up of lots of small segments, each about the size of a grain of rice, called proglottids. Adult tapeworms usually measure anywhere from four to 28 inches in length.
- As the tapeworm matures inside the dog’s gut, these segments break off and end up in the dog’s stool. Since these segments contain tapeworm eggs, the cycle will begin again, with a new host and most likely a new recipient.
How to Tell if Your Dog Has Tapeworms
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the proglottid segments can sometimes be seen crawling near the anus or on the surface of fresh waste. These eggs are released into the environment when the proglottid dries out. The dried proglottids can sometimes be seen stuck to your dog’s fur.
Another telltale sign of worm infestation is if your dog scoots their rear across the ground, on a rug, or another rough surface. Scooting may be caused by the irritation the segments are causing their skin (although full anal sacks may also be a cause). You may also see your dog licking or biting their rectal area. Often, you may spy segments of the worm near a dog’s anus or in their bedding, or a portion of the tapeworm will be released when your dog vomits.
Tapeworms are not usually harmful, and dogs rarely become ill as a result of an infestation. But weight loss may occur if your pet is heavily infected.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Tapeworms in Dogs
Have you ever wondered why your veterinarian asks you to do the unpleasant task of collecting and bringing in a fecal sample for an annual physical? The answer is that that’s how the vet tests for worms. The test will find out if tapeworms are in the anal sac or in the feces of your dog. False negatives can occur, but the tapeworm test is reliable, and most results will be conclusive. The prognosis for both animals and humans is very good post-treatment.
A prescription drug called praziquantel may be used to treat tapeworms, either orally or by injection. The medication causes the tapeworm to dissolve within the intestine. The drug generally does not have adverse side effects. Deworming medications that are effective at removing tapeworms come in varied forms, including chewables, powders, liquids, granules that are sprinkled on food, and tablets.
Don’t administer over-the-counter medications without first consulting with your veterinarian for proper diagnosis and treatment options. Dosage is dependent on knowing the current weight of a dog. And once your veterinarian prescribes medicine, be sure to administer all of the medication as prescribed.
Can Tapeworms Be Passed Along to Humans?
Tapeworms can be transmitted to humans, but the risk of infestation is very low—you’d have to swallow an infected flea or, in the case of some species of parasites, via the accidental ingestion of feces that is carrying parasitic eggs. Children are most prone to this, since they’re more likely to be outside playing in grass, parks, and other areas where dog waste might be left.
Prevention of Tapeworms in Dogs
The CDC recommends these steps to reduce the likelihood of tapeworm infestation:
- Control fleas on your pet, and in their indoor and outdoor environments
- Have your veterinarian treat your pets promptly if they have tapeworms
- Clean up after your pet, especially in playgrounds and public parks. Bury the feces, or place it in a poop bag and dispose of it in the trash
- Do not allow children to play in areas that are soiled with animal feces
- Teach children to always wash their hands after playing with dogs and cats, and after playing outdoors
- Keep the dog away from dead animals and garbage