Tapeworms are elusive parasites that pack a punch. They begin laying eggs only a few weeks after infecting a host. If your dog is the unfortunate host, you’re probably wondering how it will affect her health.
Unfortunately, tapeworms can be challenging to diagnose. Current tests that are available through a veterinarian are not good at catching tapeworms. The most common way they are diagnosed is when a pet parent finds tapeworm segments in their dog’s poop. However, infected dogs may not frequently pass tapeworm segments, and certain species are too small to be noticed by pet parents, or even veterinarians. Many times, a tapeworm infection can be present and there are no signs.
It’s important to find out whether your dog has tapeworms, especially since she can shed tapeworm eggs in her feces and contaminate the environment.
Here’s everything you need to know about tapeworms in dogs.
What Are Dog Tapeworms?
“Tapeworms are flat worms that can affect many animals, including people,” says Dr. Richard Meadows, veterinary professor at the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Tapeworms are parasites, and function by feeding off a host—including household pets and yes, dogs. Adult tapeworms live in the intestinal tract.
Types of Tapeworms in Dogs
“There are multiple types of tapeworms that affect dogs,” says Meadows. Tapeworms require an intermediate host before they can infect your dog.
Dipylidium caninum: Referred to as the “flea” tapeworm, this tapeworm uses fleas as its intermediate host. Your dog can get Dipylidium tapeworms by ingesting an infected flea.
Signs, such as tapeworm segments in your dog’s feces, may show up as early as three weeks after infection, but could also easily go unnoticed, according to the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) (1).
Taenia and Echinococcus species: These species of tapeworms use small rodents (mice, rats, squirrels), rabbits, or large animals (such as deer or sheep) as their intermediate hosts. These types of tapeworms may present themselves four to 10 weeks after infection.
Signs of Tapeworm in Dogs
Signs of tapeworm in dogs tend not to manifest in visible ways. However, a dog with tapeworms may experience unexpected weight loss.
“Tapeworms might cause a small amount of weight loss if the dog has a very heavy load,” says Meadows. However, “most dogs are believed to essentially have no symptoms from an infection with tapeworms.”
According to CAPC, one commonly mistaken sign is if your dog “scoots” her butt across the floor. While many people suspect this as a sign of tapeworms, it’s more likely indicative of blocked or irritated anal sacs (2).
In some instances, you can take a look at your dog’s poop, or around her butt, for signs of tapeworms. If your dog has a Taenia or Dipylidium infection, you may see the proglottids (small, white/yellow segments that look like grains of rice) of the tapeworm in the fur around your dog’s anus or in your dog’s feces. These segments contain tapeworm eggs.
In rare cases, you may also find a larger tapeworm (one that is several inches long) in your dog’s vomit.
It’s unusual for adult tapeworms to have a serious impact on your dog’s health. However, larval stages of some tapeworms can create severe disease within intermediate hosts, including humans.
How Do Dogs Get Tapeworms?
There are a few ways your dog could get tapeworms:
By ingesting an infected flea. As previously mentioned, fleas can act as intermediate hosts of tapeworms. Fleas are the most common source of Dipylidium caninum tapeworm infections in dogs, says Dr. Sarah Wooten, who practices in Greeley, Colorado. “If a dog accidentally eats a flea infected with tapeworm larvae while grooming or ingesting a flea-infested carcass, then the dog can become infected,” she says. “This is because the infective tapeworm larvae is released into the dog’s intestines as the flea is digested. The tapeworm attaches itself to the walls of the intestine and begins to grow and siphon off nutrients.”
Eating infected animals. Dogs can become infected with tapeworm species Taenia or Echinococcus from eating the internal organs of infected wildlife, such as rabbits and rodents. So if your dog is an avid chaser or hunter, she could be at risk.
Eating raw or undercooked meat. Another way dogs can get an Echinococcus or Taenia tapeworm infection is through meat that has not been heated (internal temperature at least 145°F) or frozen (1 week below -4°F). CAPC advises feeding pets commercial or cooked food, not raw diets (3). Dogs who are fed raw meat should be treated monthly against tapeworms. If you feed raw and are in doubt, check with your veterinarian for recommendations.
Risk of infection for each kind of tapeworm depends on the individual dog and her lifestyle. For instance, if your dog enjoys catching rabbits and squirrels in the backyard, but is on very good flea control, she’d be at higher risk for Taenia than Dipylidium.
Can Humans Get Tapeworms from Dogs?
While humans can definitely get tapeworms, the flea tapeworm cannot be passed directly from dogs to humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for a person to become infected with Dipylidium, he or she must accidentally swallow an infected flea (4). And most reported cases involve children.
The major danger for humans is with Echinococcus tapeworms. Food or water contaminated with Echinococcus eggs is a significant risk for humans. Vegetables that are eaten raw, such as lettuce and carrots, can easily be contaminated. People who ingest Echinococcus eggs can develop larval cysts or tumors within the lungs, liver, and other tissues.
Recent findings suggest that Echinococcus may be spreading to new areas. Echinococcus was recently discovered in parts of Canada and Maine where it hadn’t been known to exist before (5).
Diagnosis of Tapeworms in Dogs
Again, keep an eye on your dog’s bowel movements. Fecal tests and visual examination of the tapeworm segments are the most common way that veterinarians diagnose tapeworms in dogs.
“The flea tapeworm can be diagnosed when proglottids or segments are seen in the feces or on the animal. They look like cucumber seeds, grains of rice, or pieces of sticky, white segmented string-like material,” says Dr. Antoinette E. Marsh, associate professor and service head of the Veterinary Medical Center Diagnostic Parasitology Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine at Ohio State University Medical Center.
If you see anything like this, it’s time to contact your vet.
“If foreign materials such as this are visible in the dog’s feces, then a fecal examination using laboratory procedures and a microscope can be used to identify the structures,” says Marsh. “Moreover, veterinarians use annual fecal examinations to check for parasitic infections that might not be obvious, yet are internally impacting your dog.”
However, improved diagnostics are needed. While tapeworms are obvious if you or your veterinarian see a tapeworm segment, the majority of existing tapeworm infections are missed using currently available fecal examination methods (6). As such, dogs at risk of infection should be regularly dewormed for tapeworms. By using a monthly dewormer, you can treat tapeworm infections within your pet while helping protect against future infections.
Tapeworm Treatment for Dogs
Tapeworms are treated with a tapeworm dewormer for dogs.
“Treatment depends on the tapeworm identified,” says Marsh. “If it’s the common flea tapeworm, then both flea and tapeworm treatment are required.”
Tapeworm Medicine for Dogs
Common prescription tapeworm medications for dogs include praziquantel, which is effective against Dipylidium caninum, Taenia spp., and Echinococcus spp.
“The proper dosing and product is important,” says Marsh, “therefore, working with your veterinarian will prevent the wrong medication or improper dosing from being used.”
Prevention of Tapeworms in Dogs
The only way you’d be able to completely prevent your dog from getting tapeworm is by eliminating all exposure risks. Since that would be near impossible to do, regular treatment is ideal.
Thankfully, treating and controlling tapeworm infections in dogs is easy with the use of broad-spectrum parasite protection. Certain heartworm preventives available on the market are combination products that also protect against common worms. For example, Interceptor® Plus (milbemycin oxime/praziquantel) is a tasty monthly chew that treats and controls tapeworm, hookworm, roundworm, and whipworm infections in dogs while also preventing heartworm disease.
Tick and flea treatment should also be used throughout the year—even in winter. By preventing flea infestations, you can help protect her against Dipylidium tapeworm infections. Credelio® (lotilaner) chewable tablets are an example of a monthly medication that kills ticks and fleas on dogs.
See important safety information for Interceptor® Plus and Credelio® below.
While regularly vacuuming and washing your dog’s bedding, carpets, and the furniture she frequents can help eliminate an existing flea infestation in your home, it isn’t that effective in preventing an infestation. Maintaining year-round flea control is an effective way to avoid infestations.
To help avoid an Echinococcus tapeworm infection, only feed your dog commercial or cooked foods, and don’t serve raw meat at home, unless you do so under the guidance of a veterinarian.
Other steps you can take to protect your dog against parasites include visiting your veterinarian for routine checkups. Your veterinarian may conduct a fecal test during your dog’s annual physical exam to check for parasites. If your dog is not already on broad-spectrum parasite protection, your veterinarian can make recommendations based on your individual pet’s lifestyle and which parasites are prevalent in your region.
“If you acquire a new dog, be sure to have a fecal examination done to check for parasites and schedule and request at least an annual fecal examination so no surprise infections occur down the road,” Marsh says.
Remember: Tapeworms are easy to miss during veterinary exams. They are easy to treat though, especially when your monthly heartworm preventive also includes broad-spectrum coverage that includes tapeworms.
Credelio kills adult fleas and is indicated for the treatment and prevention of flea infestations, treatment and control of tick infestations (lone star tick, American dog tick, black-legged tick, and brown dog tick) for one month in dogs and puppies 8 weeks and older and 4.4 pounds or greater.
Credelio Important Safety Information
Lotilaner is a member of the isoxazoline class of drugs. This class has been associated with neurologic adverse reactions including tremors, incoordination, and seizures. Seizures have been reported in dogs receiving this class of drugs, even in dogs without a history of seizures. Use with caution in dogs with a history of seizures or neurologic disorders. The safe use of Credelio in breeding, pregnant or lactating dogs has not been evaluated. The most frequently reported adverse reactions are weight loss, elevated blood urea nitrogen, increased urination, and diarrhea. For complete safety information, please see Credelio product label or ask your veterinarian.
Interceptor Plus Indications
Interceptor Plus prevents heartworm disease and treats and controls adult roundworm, hookworm, whipworm, and tapeworm infections in dogs and puppies 6 weeks or older and 2 pounds or greater.
Interceptor Plus Important Safety Information
Treatment with fewer than 6 monthly doses after the last exposure to mosquitoes may not provide complete heartworm prevention. Prior to administration of Interceptor Plus, dogs should be tested for existing heartworm infections. The safety of Interceptor Plus has not been evaluated in dogs used for breeding or in lactating females. The following adverse reactions have been reported in dogs after administration of milbemycin oxime or praziquantel: vomiting, diarrhea, decreased activity, incoordination, weight loss, convulsions, weakness, and salivation. For complete safety information, please see Interceptor Plus product label or ask your veterinarian.
Disclaimer: The author received compensation from Elanco US Inc., the maker of Interceptor Plus and Credelio, for her services in writing this article.
- Dipylidium Caninum for Dog. Companion Animal Parasite Council. Retrieved from https://capcvet.org/guidelines/dipylidium-caninum/
- Dog Owners: Tapeworms. Pets & Parasites. Retrieved from https://www.petsandparasites.org/dog-owners/tapeworms/
- General Guidelines for Dog. Companion Animal Parasite Council. Retrieved from: https://capcvet.org/guidelines/general-guidelines/
- Dipylidium FAQs. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/dipylidium/faqs.html
- Schurer JM, Bouchard E, Bryant A, Revell S, Chavis G, Lichtenwalner A, et al. (2018) Echinococcus in wild canids in Québec (Canada) and Maine (USA). PLoS Negl Trop Dis 12(8): e0006712. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pntd.0006712
- Adolph, Chris & Barnett, Sharon & Beall, Melissa & Drake, Jason & Elsemore, David & Thomas, Jennifer & Little, Susan. (2017). Diagnostic strategies to reveal covert infections with intestinal helminths in dogs. Veterinary Parasitology. 247. 10.1016/j.vetpar.2017.10.002.
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