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Understanding Tapeworms Like It or Not

posted July 15th, 2011 by
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By Nancy Gallimore Werhane

If you are squeamish, this may not be the article for you. Fair warning. But if you are a concerned pet owner, this is a topic you need to understand, so steel yourself and read on because frankly, your veterinarian may need your help to diagnose this one.

The topic? The mysterious tapeworm. Also formally known as the disgusting tapeworm.

So why in the world should we even discuss this parasite? You take your cats and dogs to the veterinarian for checkups, right? Your veterinarian checks for things like this. Right? Well, here’s the ugly truth. While your veterinarian can screen your pets for many intestinal parasites like hookworms, roundworms and whipworms, the sneaky tapeworm evades detection in standard screenings.

How then, you may ask, is your pet diagnosed with tapeworms? Good question. Otherwise healthy dogs or cats may have tapeworm infections with no outward symptoms. That means detection often comes when you actually see them. Yes, you. Yes, see them. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Ok, let’s sort this out. Perhaps it’s best to start at the end. Literally. Tapeworms are most often diagnosed when someone notices what appear to be little white worms either in a pet’s stool or left behind where the dog or cat was sitting. The most common description is that they look like little pieces of squirming white rice. They might also be diagnosed by the discovery of what appears to be little grains of dried brown rice or seeds around the dog or cat’s anus. Why we compare both to food items is hard to fathom, but there you have it.

According to Dr. Dennis Henson of Hammond Animal Hospital in Tulsa, these little pieces are not the actual worms, but are segments of an adult tapeworm. “As the tapeworm matures,” explained Dr. Henson, “ it drops tail segments called proglottids, that are mobile. Each proglottid is a separate reproductive unit that contains the eggs of the tapeworm. These egg packets then pass in the feces of the dog or cat.”

That’s what makes tapeworm detection a bit tricky. With other parasites, the eggs shed directly in the animal’s feces.

Because the tapeworm eggs shed so neatly packaged, unless the segments disintegrate first, which rarely happens, they don’t show up in a traditional fecal test. The culprit in the spread of the most common form of tapeworm found in our pets is the common flea. Unlike other parasites, tapeworms require an intermediate host to complete their reproductive cycle. So here’s the Reader’s

Digest version of how it works:

  • A flea larvae eats fecal matter that contains tapeworm eggs.
  • The eggs hatch inside the flea and become cysticercoids.
  • A dog or cat may then swallow a flea that contains these cysticercoids.
  • The flea passes into the dog or cat’s intestine where it is broken down, releasing the cysticercoids.
  • The cysticercoids then develop into adult tapeworms that attach to the lining of the animal’s intestine and feed off the nutrients.

This is where we come full circle back to the part where the segments containing the eggs shed and the cycle is allowed to start all over again. Isn’t nature fun?

You may think your pet is safe because you religiously follow a flea prevention routine and don’t have fleas in your home environment. According to Dr. Henson, yes, that helps, but it does not guarantee that your pet will not be infested by tapeworms. “Your pet only has to swallow one infected flea,” said Henson. “A dog who goes for a walk where other animals have been or a cat who strays from its own yard can easily ingest a flea even with flea preventatives in use.”

There is also another type of tapeworm that is transmitted through small rodents, such as mice, rats, squirrels or rabbits, that serve as the intermediate host. If you have a hunter in your midst — and what dog or cat won’t occasionally partake of a “natural diet” when opportunity presents itself — then you have yet another avenue for the tapeworm to find its way into your pet’s intestinal tract.

According to Dr. Henson, there is some good news here. First, unless left unchecked for a very long period of time, tapeworms don’t generally cause a lot of damage in pets. Second, because they must have a very specific intermediate host, tapeworms cannot be transmitted directly from pet to pet or through contact with infected feces. Without a proper host, the tapeworm just can’t exist. It’s hard to imagine, but if your pet must have a parasite, the tapeworm may be the best of the pack. Of course that doesn’t mean we love them. We don’t. So let’s discuss how to get rid of them.

Dr. Henson advises that most over-the-counter worm treatments are not effective for tapeworms. He suggests you call your veterinarian to report your find. “Today’s treatment for tapeworms is simple and effective,” said Henson. “The medication we prescribe causes the tapeworm to lose its protective layer and it is simply digested. You will not see them pass, they just basically disappear.”

The most common medication prescribed is called Droncit® and it comes in the form of a chewable tablet that is apparently quite tasty to pets. Problem solved.

Oh, and in case you are worried, apparently humans rarely get tapeworms. It is possible that you could swallow a flea, and yes, you could get a tapeworm that way, but humans are more likely to come down with a species of tapeworm that is passed through raw or undercooked meat or fish. Just a little something to think about as you sit down to enjoy that next round of sushi or sashimi. Still rare, people. Don’t panic.

So all in all, while tapeworms are truly disgusting, on the scale of parasitic infections, they do rank as fairly harmless. Now take your new knowledge, go forth and watch your pet do number two. Your veterinarian is counting on you.