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Pet Tapeworms: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly
By: Trupanion Staff / Updated June 23, 2023
Tapeworms in pets are a common yet potentially very dangerous condition. The good news is that successful treatment is possible (especially when tapeworms are caught early), and routine parasite prevention can help prevent tapeworm infestations from happening in the first place.
But what exactly are tapeworms, and how can you tell if your pet is at risk? It's not the most fun topic of discussion when it comes to cat and dog health concerns, but knowing more about this parasitic worm and how it affects your pet is important for all pet owners.
What exactly are tapeworms?
Tapeworms are long, flat worms with segmented bodies, each with its own reproductive organ. The worms attaches itself to your pet’s intestines, where it can absorb nutrients and grow. As the infestation progresses, more worms can appear, and your pet may start to lose weight due to lost nutrients. While only fatal in extreme cases, tapeworm infestations in dogs and cats can lead to serious gastrointestinal issues.
Tapeworms can also be passed onto humans, which is why it’s always important to be hygienic when dealing with your pet’s waste and observant to any changes in their behavior that could show they’re uncomfortable.
How do pets get tapeworms?
The most common type of tapeworm (known as Dipylidium Caninum) is caused by swallowing an adult flea containing tapeworm larvae. This often occurs when a cat or dog grooms themselves or another animal.
They can also pick up the parasite while scavenging, especially if they eat another animal or its feces. After it has been digested, the eggs hatch and attach themselves to the intestines, where they can grow to a staggering 28 inches in length.
As tapeworms in pets develop, small segments break off and get passed through the animal’s digestive system. These segments contain tapeworm eggs, which means they can soon find another host.
Even the most well-fed pets can scavenge. If you want to break the cycle, you’ll need to keep your dog on a short leash and prevent him or her from eating anything from the ground.
Signs of tapeworms in pets
Pets that have a tapeworm don’t necessarily have any symptoms. You may not notice any weight loss or sickness, and even though some may ‘scoot’ along the floor, this could simply be caused by an itch or impacted anal gland. The most definitive way to diagnose tapeworms in pets is through sight.
When the tapeworm grows, some of the segments break off, which are about the size of a grain of rice and pass into the animal’s intestines. You may see dried, white or cream-colored segments in your pet’s feces; however, some segments can be too small to see.
Keep an eye out for the following:
- Licking or biting their anus
- Irregularly itching their behind, perhaps by dragging or ‘scooting’ along the floor
- Losing weight, even though they are eating normally
- Vomiting, which can be caused if tapeworms make their way into the stomach
- White or cream ‘grain-size’ segments on the fur, particularly by their tail, or in their bed
- White or cream ‘grain-size’ segments, or worms, in their stool
- Diarrhea, which may or may not have visible worms in it
If you are at all concerned, consult your veterinarian to get your pet treated as quickly as possible.
Treating tapeworms in pets
There are a variety of touted home remedies for tapeworms, but be aware that many (if not most) of these only help ease some of the discomfort your pet may be feeling. It's always best to take an aggressive approach with pet parasites and use medication prescribed by their veterinarian. If you have detected tapeworms by finding segments in the animal’s feces or in the fur by their tail, your veterinarian can properly confirm that your pet has tapeworms (as opposed to a different parasite). They will then be able to provide or advise which deworming medication will be most effective in killing all live tapeworms and larvae.
It is your responsibility as the pet owner to administer all medication as directed by your veterinarian. If this is not done or treatment is inconsistent, then it is possible that the tapeworms will return, and you will have to start over again.
Preventing tapeworms in pets
Prevention is always better than having to deal with tapeworms. And as any pet parent who has already had to battle them will tell you, once you get rid of tapeworms, you're going to want to keep them at bay permanently. Here are five easy steps you can take to help prevent re-infection to keep your dog or cat healthy and happy.
1. Check daily
The number-one rule of good dog care is to bag it and bin it. It’s not our favorite job; however, in the days and weeks after your pet has been treated for tapeworm, take it as an opportunity to check their stools for any signs of white segments or worms. As for cats, clean litter boxes daily and look for any signs of worms while you're at it.
2. Continue flea treatment
Get a flea treatment for your pet and eliminate any fleas or lice from their environment. Regularly check their fur for fleas, bites or any kind of irritation. This will significantly reduce the risk of ingesting fleas and your pet picking up another infection.
3. Keep your four-legged friend away from other hosts
Some dogs are prone to sniffing or even eating other animals’ stools. Cats on the other hand can bring home dead or injured animals into the household. Do your best to keep your pets away from these things.
4. Put a lid on it
Keep your pets out of your trash by ensuring it’s contained and out of range for them. Any pet will find it hard to resist that leftover chicken, so make sure they don’t have the option.
5. Check their bed
Whenever your pet wakes from a nap or comes over for a pet, check their bed for any grain-like segments that may have shed from their fur. This is much easier on darker material, so it may be time for a new bed for your precious companion.
Preventing tapeworms can be a challenge, and symptoms can be hard to spot. Conduct regular, thorough checks on your pet and keep an eye on their bowel movements. This is the best way to avoid tapeworms in pets.
This article is intended as an informative guide for pet owners, but is not a replacement for veterinary care. If you believe your pet may be infected with roundworms, seek professional advice from a veterinarian.
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Pet Parenting is the official blog of Trupanion, a leader in the world of pet insurance for dogs and cats. Here you’ll find useful dog and cat care tips, interesting veterinary insights, and fun pet topics galore. While you’re browsing our pet blog, please note that the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Trupanion. Articles are reviewed by veterinarians for accuracy, but they are not a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. Always consult with your own pet’s veterinarian for advice.
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