Tapeworms gained their name from their appearance; they are a long and flat endoparasite, and look much like tape! They are pale and live in the intestines of mammals; horses, dogs, cats – and even their owners! The good news is that they rarely cause your pet great amounts of systemic illness; unlike parasites such as heartworm, they are unlikely to kill your pet. The bad news is, they are associated with fleas. Let’s take a closer look at tapeworms in our dogs and cats…
How would my pet get tapeworm?
An unwanted guest…
The most common cause of tapeworm infection is actually from fleas! The larvae of the tapeworm can be carried by fleas; this is particularly true for one species known as Dipylidium caninum. The flea can live on your pet, carrying this tapeworm larva. Fleas cause itching and scratching, and when your pet licks itself due to the itchiness, it can then ingest the larva, allowing the tapeworm to develop inside your pet’s gastrointestinal tract, and develop into an adult living in the intestines.
A not-so-successful hunt….
Many cats, and occasionally dogs, are successful hunters. The chances are, when Felix goes hunting for a rabbit, he is not expecting to also pick up a tapeworm! Certain species of tapeworms, such as the Echinococcus and Taenia species, can actually be contracted from the ingestion of infected, raw meat – watch out, avid hunters!
How would I know if Fido or Felix has tapeworms?
The tapeworm will produce small segments which are full of eggs; these will pass out in your pet’s faeces. These look like small grains of rice; they may be found in your dog’s or cat’s poo, or around the anus. Very rarely, they will cause an anal pruritus – an itchy bum! These segments can be found in poo, around the house or in your pet’s bedding.
Thankfully, tapeworms do not cause many overt clinical signs. However, they can cause morbidity (illness), depending on the animal; for example, animals with underlying health conditions are more likely to be adversely affected by having a tapeworm. Tapeworms can cause weight loss; they live in the intestines, and can share in the nutrients passing through your animal’s digestive system. In rare cases they can cause gastrointestinal upset such as vomiting or diarrhoea, and very occasionally they can cause a twisted bowel (intussusception), most often in younger animals. Generally, the only sign that your pet has tapeworms will be that you can see the segments being passed.
A diagnosis can be made by one of our vets from a poo sample. They can also check for the presence of fleas and flea dirt in the coat, and take a history about your pet’s lifestyle, such as whether they hunt, and what they have been wormed with. These may suggest that your pet is at risk of a tapeworm infection.
What can we do if my pet has tapeworms?
Effective treatment is based upon worming with a type of wormer which is effective at killing this particular type of worm; generally, an anti-parasite drug (an anthelmintic) called praziquantel will be used.
It is also very important to treat pets for fleas! A regular prescription-strength spot-on treatment will be effective in treating any fleas. Unfortunately, many off-the- shelf flea and worming treatments in pet shops are not particularly effective against fleas – our vets will be able to recommend the most effective treatment.
You may be wondering about prevention. It is hard to stop pets from hunting when they go outside. However, feeding good quality food and having regular flea and worm treatments in place for your pet will greatly reduce the chances of them acquiring a tapeworm.
“Dogs come when they’re called; cats take a message and get back to you later.”