Tapeworms in Dogs:
The adult Dipylidium caninum lives in the small intestine of dogs or cats. It is hooked onto the intestinal wall by a structure called a rostellum, which is sort of like a hat with hooks on it. The tapeworm also has six rows of teeth it uses to grab on to the intestinal wall. Most people are confused about the size of a tapeworm because they only see its segments, which are small; the entire tapeworm is usually 6 inches or more.
Once docked like a boat to the host’s intestinal wall, the tapeworm begins to grow a long tail. The tapeworm’s body is basically a head segment to hold on with, a neck, and many tail segments. Each segment making up the tail is like a separate independent body, with an independent digestive system and reproductive tract. The tapeworm absorbs nutrients through its skin as the food being digested by the host flows past it. Older segments are pushed toward the tip of the tail as new segments are produced by the neckpiece. By the time a segment has reached the end of the tail, only the reproductive tract is left. When the segment drops off, it is basically just a sac of tapeworm eggs.
The sac is passed from the host’s rectum and out into the world, either on the host’s stool or on the host’s rear end. The segment is the size of a rice grain and is able to move. Eventually the segment will dry up and look more like a sesame seed. The sac breaks and tapeworm eggs are released. These eggs are not infectious to mammals. The tapeworm must reach a specific stage of development before it can infect a mammal.
Larval fleas are generally hatching in this vicinity and these larvae are busy grazing on organic debris and flea dirt (the black specks of digested blood shed by adult fleas to nourish their larvae). The flea larvae do not pay close attention to what they eat and innocently consume tapeworm eggs.
As the larval flea progresses in its development, the tapeworm inside it is also progressing in development. By the time the flea is an adult, the tapeworm is ready to infect a dog or cat. The young tapeworm is only infectious to its mammal host at this stage of development. The flea goes about its usual business, namely sucking its host’s blood, when to its horror it is licked away by the host and swallowed.
Inside the host’s stomach, the flea’s body is digested and the young tapeworm is released. It finds a nice spot to attach and the life cycle begins again. It takes 3 weeks from the time the flea is swallowed to the time tapeworm segments appear on the pet’s rear end or stool.
Controlling fleas is essential to prevent recurring infections with this species of tapeworm.
Why is it Called a Tapeworm?
This creature gets its name because its segments and body are very flat and look like a piece of tape.
What do they look like?
Inside a pet, the adult tapeworm can be a half a foot long or more. It is made of small segments, each about the size of a grain of rice. The tapeworm’s head hooks onto the pet’s intestine with tiny teeth and the worm absorbs nutrients through its skin. Each segment contains a complete set of organs but as new segments grow in at the neck area and older segments progress to the tip of the tail, the organs disintegrate except for the reproductive organs. When the segment drops off from the tail tip, it is only a sac of eggs.
This segment is white and able to move when it is fresh and, at this time, looks like a grain of white rice. As the segment dries, it looks more like a sesame seed.
Where do they Come from?
There is no other way for a pet to get Dipylidium caninum except from fleas.
Many people who had thought their pet could not possibly have fleas find out about the infestation this way. The tapeworm segment breaks open, releasing its eggs. A larval flea consumes the egg along with the flea dirt that it normally eats. As the larval flea matures, so does the baby tapeworm. When a grooming dog or cat licks the flea and swallows it, the dead flea is digested in the dog’s stomach, releasing the baby tapeworm. The tapeworm is passed to its new home in the dog or cat’s small intestine, where it attaches and lives its life.
This parasite does not harm the pet in any way as there are plenty of nutrients passing by to serve both the host and its tapeworm (tapeworms require very little nutrients.) Still, high performance dogs, who need every calorie working for them, may show a decrease in performance because of a tapeworm infection.
There is another type of tapeworm that may be confused with Dipylidium caninum and that is the Taenia genus of tapeworms. This tapeworm has a segment that looks different and has a different mechanism of infection.
How do you Know if your Pet has them? Why do they Sometimes Fail to Show up in a Fecal Test?
Because the eggs are passed by the pet in packets (segments), they often do not show up on the fecal exam; the packet must break open for the eggs to be seen. Consider that the pet has tapeworms if segments are seen under its tail, around its anus, or on its feces. Segments can be passed in small groups connected to each other, leading the owner to describe a worm that sounds larger than a grain of rice. Tapeworm segments are also quite flat.
Some people will mistake maggots in the stool for tapeworms. Maggots are not seen in freshly passed stool and are not flat.
Can People get them?
Theoretically, yes, people can get them but they must be infected the same way dogs and cats are: by swallowing an infected flea.
How do we Get Rid of Them?
Tapeworms are killed by different medications (one is called praziquantel), which is administered by injection, tablet, or topically. The tapeworm is killed and digested with the pet’s food. It is not passed in the stool later.
Why do some Veterinarians Recommend Two Treatments and others only Recommend One Treatment?
Only one treatment is needed to kill the tapeworms in the body; however, many clinics recommend a second injection in three weeks. The reason for the second injection is this: If the owner finds out at the time of their office visit that they need to control fleas to control tapeworms, they will need at least a month or so to control the fleas.
After the first treatment is given, there is no reason why the pet cannot immediately get reinfected. It probably will reinfect itself at some point. By seeing the animal in three weeks and giving another treatment after the fleas are controlled, there is a good chance that the tapeworms will not be back three weeks later. It takes three weeks from the time the pet swallows the tapeworms to the time segments can be seen by the owner.
On the other hand, who knows when the pet will swallow another infected flea? Our recommendation is that a single treatment be administered whenever segments are seen.
If One Pet Has Tapeworm Segments, can it be Assumed that they all Do?
No, just because one pet in the household has swallowed an infected flea does not mean they all have. Our recommendation is to deworm only the pets who have obvious tapeworms.
Why Might a Pet Continue to get Tapeworm Infections?
While many people would like to blame the medication as ineffective, the truth is that there must be an on-going flea population in the pet’s environment. The key to eradicating Dipylidium caninum is flea control.
Date Published: 1/1/2001
Date Reviewed/Revised: 04/15/2010
Copyright 2010 – 2013 by the Veterinary Information Network, Inc. All rights reserved.
Tapeworms in Cats:
Tapeworms are the most common internal parasite in adult cats. They live in the small intestines, and vary in length from less than 1 inch (25 mm) to several feet (1 foot is .3 meters). The scolex (head) of the parasite fastens itself to the wall of the gut using hooks and suckers. The body is composed of segments that contain egg packets. To eliminate tapeworm infection, the head must be destroyed. Otherwise, the worm will regenerate.
The body segments containing the eggs are passed in the feces. These are called proglottids. Fresh moist segments are capable of moving. They are about .25 inches (6.3 mm) long. Occasionally, you might see them in the fur about your cat’s anus or in her stool. When dry, they resemble grains of rice.
There are two common tapeworm species found in cats; both are transmitted by an intermediate host. Dipylidium caninum is acquired from fleas or lice that harbor immature tapeworms in their intestines. These insects acquire the parasite by eating tapeworm eggs. The cat must bite or swallow the insect to become infested. The tapeworm Taenia taeniaformis is acquired by eating rodents, uncooked meat, raw freshwater fish, or discarded animal parts.
Dibothriocephalus latus and Spirometra mansonoides are two uncommon tapeworms cats might acquire from eating uncooked freshwater fish or a water snake. Spirometra mansonoides is seen primarily in outdoor cats along the Gulf Coast region. Dibothriocephalus latus might be seen in the Gulf Coast region or around the Great Lakes. Echinococcus tapeworms are rarely found in cats.
Praziquantal is one of the most effective medications for both common species of cat tapeworm. Other suitable treatments are fenbendazole and espiprantal. Use under veterinary guidance. Deworming must be combined with control of fleas and lice, in the case of Dipylidium caninum, and by preventing roaming and hunting in the case of other tapeworms.
Public health considerations:
A child could acquire a tapeworm if they accidentally swallowed an infected flea. Except for this unusual circumstance, cat tapeworms do not present a hazard to human health.
WebMD Veterinary Reference from “Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook”
Copyright © 2008 by Delbert Carlson, DVM, and James M. Giffin, MD. All rights reserved.