Tapeworms (Dipylidium caninum) are one of the most frequently diagnosed intestinal parasites in dogs and cats. This long, segmented parasite can grow over two feet long and live in an infected pet’s small intestine for up to three months. Most pet parents rush to the nearest veterinary clinic as soon as they see the glistening white proglottids, or tapeworm egg sacs, clinging to their pet’s backside or slithering in the stool. What every pet owner wants to know is can this disgusting worm be living inside them? The answer is probably not.
Before we go further, it’s important to note that while tapeworm infection in dogs and cats is extremely common, human infection with the dog or cat tapeworm is extremely rare. Rare as in there have only been a few cases in the U.S. I’m not worried about a two-foot long dog or cat tapeworm winding its way around my intestines. The majority of human tapeworm cases reported involve children accidentally eating a flea harboring the infective stage of the parasite.
The flea is the key
Fleas are the key to tapeworm infection in dogs, cats and people. It takes a flea ingesting an infective egg to complete the life cycle of the tapeworm. That infected flea then has to be devoured, delivering its tapeworm egg cargo into the host’s intestinal tract. That’s why if I’ve ever diagnosed your pet with tapeworms, I sent you home with a flea preventive.
If a person accidentally swallows a tapeworm-infected flea, chances are nothing will happen. Most of the time our body will simply crush the invader before it can get a stronghold in our gut. The truth is that most humans diagnosed with “tapeworms” actually have pinworms (Enterobius vermicularis).
Signs you might have tapeworms
If you’re unlucky enough to contract a tapeworm, in a few months you’ll likely see small, white, rice-like proglottids popping up in your stool. These proglottids are desperately seeking a flea to eat them so they can grow up to be big worms. Many people with tapeworms will experience abdominal discomfort, a distended tummy and insomnia.
Treating tapeworms is simple - a deworming medication is given and, presto, dead tapeworm. If your pet contracts tapeworms, see your vet immediately because those over-the-counter dewormers won’t do the trick. At the same time, step up your flea preventive regimen to prevent future infections. No fleas, no tapeworms, no nightmares.
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