Tapeworms in dogs are common intestinal parasites. While they usually don’t cause severe problems for healthy adult dogs, they can be dangerous for puppies. Recognizing the signs of parasites like tapeworms will help you catch potential infections before they get out of control.
Tapeworms belong to a family of worms called cestodes. Dogs can contract several kinds of tapeworms, but the most common among household dogs in the United States is dipylidium caninum.
Signs and Symptoms of Tapeworms in Dogs
Signs and symptoms of tapeworms in dogs vary depending on the severity of the infection, but often include:
- Failure to grow
- Decreased appetite
- Shaggy coat
- Intestinal blockage
- Evidence of tapeworms in feces or vomit
Tapeworms rarely cause serious symptoms in healthy dogs. However, very young, very old, or dogs with compromised immune symptoms may exhibit more severe signs, like intestinal blockages. These can be fatal if not treated.
Tapeworms attach to a dog’s small intestine with their hook-like mouths. The rest of the tapeworm, however, is made up of small, flat segments called proglottids, each approximately 3-5 mm in length. An adult tapeworm can reach up to 8 inches in length.
You may notice segments of adult tapeworms in your dog’s poop. These segments look like grains of rice, and you might also see worms around your dog’s anus. Some dogs scoot to relieve the irritation caused by tapeworms. However, since scooting can also be a symptom of impacted or full anal glands, it is not a definitive sign of tapeworms in dogs.
How Did My Dog Get Tapeworms?
Tapeworms in dogs are spread in several ways, depending on the species.
- Eating fleas
- Eating infected animals
- Consuming raw or undercooked meat
Dipylidium caninum, the most common tapeworm in dogs, is spread through an intermediate host: fleas. Infected dogs pass tapeworm segments in their feces, where they dry and eventually break open. This releases the fertilized eggs into the environment, where they are consumed by flea larvae. As these larvae develop into adult fleas, the tapeworm egg also develops. Dogs ingest fleas infected with tapeworms while grooming or itching. Once ingested, the tapeworms infect a canine host.
Other species of tapeworms can be found in wild animals. Hunting dogs, dogs that have access to small mammals like mice or rats, and dogs fed raw meat or offal may become infected with these tapeworm species.
Diagnosing Tapeworms in Dogs
Diagnosing tapeworms in dogs occurs when a veterinarian finds tapeworm segments or eggs in a fecal sample. If other clinical signs are present, like stunted growth or poor coat condition, ruling out tapeworms and other parasites are essential for an accurate diagnosis. Your veterinarian will examine your dog’s feces for evidence of tapeworm activity. He or she may also examine the anus directly to see if any worms are visible.
However, dogs pass tapeworm segments intermittently, not in every stool. This means that tapeworm infections are not always identified during routine visits.
You can help your veterinarian make an accurate diagnosis by bringing in samples of feces that have visible tapeworm segments. If you notice segments in your dog’s coat, bring those in, too. Once tapeworms are discovered, veterinarians use diagnostic tests like a PCR to differentiate between tapeworm species. This is important for determining the appropriate treatment.
Treating Your Dog for Tapeworms
Tapeworms in dogs are usually straightforward to treat. Deworming medications like praziquantel remove the parasites from your dog’s intestines, eliminating the infection. Other medications include fenbendazole, epsiprantel, and nitroscanate, depending on the species of tapeworm. In some cases, tapeworms may lead to other problems, like intestinal blockages. This might require additional measures to treat and stabilize the patient.
Is There a Cure for Tapeworms?
Yes. Deworming medications cure tapeworms in dogs, in conjunction with proper management strategies.
Are Tapeworms Contagious for Humans or Other Pets?
Tapeworms can be contagious for humans and other pets. Humans rarely contract dipylidium caninum, as it requires ingesting fleas, but this parasite can spread to other household dogs through the intermediate flea host.
Cats can contract some species of tapeworms, like taenia species. These parasites are contracted by eating infected prey or feces. If your dog is diagnosed with a taenia tapeworm, talk to your veterinarian about your cat’s risk of catching the parasite, especially if your cat is an active hunter.
Humans can also contract echinococcus species of tapeworms. These worms are smaller than taenia or dipylidium tapeworms, and can cause a condition in humans called hydatidosis, which results in liver cysts.
While rare, proper hygiene will further reduce your risk of contracting tapeworms from your dog, as will avoiding consuming raw or partially cooked meat.
What Is the Cost for Treating Tapeworms?
In most cases, the cost of treating tapeworms is low. You can expect to pay for your veterinary visit, diagnostics, and medications. Severe cases of tapeworm infections that result in intestinal blockages and require additional treatment measures will cost more.
Recovery and Management of Tapeworms
Managing tapeworms in dogs begins with medication. However, you will also need to take steps to avoid reinfection. Dipylidium caninum depends on fleas for transmission. This means you will also need to control flea infestations on your dog and in your home. Talk to your veterinarian about the best flea prevention strategies for your area.
Controlling your dog’s access to raw meat, carrion, and game will reduce the risk of reinfection by other species of tapeworms.
Tapeworms in dogs can be prevented with regular parasite control. This is especially important for puppies, who should be on a schedule of appropriate deworming medications as they mature. Areas with high incidences of tapeworm infections may require additional preventative measures.
Proper flea control is the easiest way to prevent tapeworms. There are several different flea and tick products on the market. Some are appropriate for puppies, while others are only suitable for adult dogs. Keeping your dog on preventatives also helps reduce the risk of other diseases, like heartworm, tick-borne diseases, and flea allergies.
Is There a Vaccine for Tapeworms?
There is no vaccine for tapeworms.
Tapeworms in dogs are common intestinal parasites. While they’re easily treatable with medication, they can lead to severe problems in young, old or immunocompromised dogs, so it’s important to be aware of the signs. Common symptoms include decreased appetite, signs of the worm segments in feces or vomit, and failure to grow (in puppies). Thankfully, tapeworms are preventable. Speak to your veterinarian about an appropriate monthly preventative medication to keep your dog healthy.