Tapeworms are a common problem. The infection can be caught from multiple areas and environments; however, some conditions make them more likely to be transmitted.
What is a tapeworm?
They are long, flat worms that live in your pet’s intestines. Most species can be infected and the larvae are often ingested by dogs while they groom, or from the soil or grass. They travel to the intestine where they attach to the mucous lining, using their strong mouthpieces, and grow into adults. They can grow up to 8 inches in length and, when mature, produce proglottids (segments) which grow from the end of the worm. Tapeworms are made from lots of segments, all of which have their own reproductive parts allowing their numbers to multiply rapidly as they constantly reproduce. These segments become gravid (pregnant with a pack of eggs encircled in a membrane) and are passed in the pets’ faeces, where they burst releasing tapeworm eggs onto the grass or material beneath them. These eggs are ingested by an intermediate host (normally a flea or a rodent), which is then eaten by your pets. The eggs are released and hatch into tiny tapeworm heads, which mature into adult worms inside your pet over 2 months or so.
Is my pet likely to get tapeworm?
There are lots of different types of tapeworm, each with different intermediate hosts, meaning tapeworm can be caught from various sources. The tapeworm eggs can live in the environment in grass and soil, carpets and dust, so it is hard to eliminate the process of infection as we cannot keep this permanently clean. The flea is a common intermediate host, so keeping your pets away from any fleas, or areas where you know there will be a high flea count can help to prevent your pet from becoming infected.
Fleas commonly live on cats so if your pets spend lots of time with cats they are more likely to pick up the infection. Fleas thrive in areas which are moist, humid and shaded. If your dog has fleas, they will be itching excessively so they may appear to have bald patches, redness of the skin, and potentially wounds, or even blood. Regularly treating your pet for fleas would be a good preventative treatment for this type of tapeworm. Reinfection can occur if a new flea (also infected) is ingested, so one preventative treatment will not usually be enough.
Mice and rodents can be carriers too so, if possible, reduce the access your pets have to areas which may be infested. If your cat likes to hunt or rummage through bins, they are more likely to pick up tapeworm from these sources. If you know an area is likely to be habituated by rodents, try to keep your dog on a lead whilst walking through these areas. This allows you to have more control over your pet, helping to prevent them from eating infectious material.
What are the symptoms of tapeworm?
Tapeworms can cause lots of different health problems. If your pet is infected, you may see small white objects, that look like grains of rice, around the tail or in the faeces. They may even be moving! These segments stick to bedding or rugs where your pet spends a lot of time so if you suspect an infection, be sure to investigate these locations and clean them thoroughly. Your pet may itch their rear end a lot as the larvae become stuck in the area, irritating it. If the burden is much larger, weight loss may be seen.
If your pet has worms living inside the intestines, they may show weight loss and have lower energy levels compared to normal. This is because the worms are stealing their nutrients. You may notice a difference in eating habits, as they often lose their appetite and then quickly become very hungry again. Their coat may become duller looking. Blood may be seen in the faeces, so careful investigation of the stool using gloves could be useful – or just ask us about it if you prefer! You may see worms or white eggs in the faeces. The heavier the worm burden, the more serious the symptoms become; it is therefore very important to treat this infection as soon as possible.
If any symptoms are seen, please call or visit the practice for more specific information on treatment and we can help return your pet to normal health as soon as possible!
Unfortunately, lots of animals show no symptoms.
Can I catch tapeworm from my pet?
People are rarely infected by tapeworm, but these infections do occur. You cannot catch the infection directly from your dog. The human infection occurs when the human ingests a flea carrying the infection. Fleas often live on animals, so if people are commonly in close contact with animals they are much more likely to become infected. This is more common in children compared to adults.
Summary – DO NOT WORRY ABOUT TAPEWORM, but DO TREAT IT. It is very common and treatment is available. If you notice a sudden change in behaviour or weight, contact one of our vets!