I don’t generally recommend that owners diagnose or treat their pets without first seeing or at least talking with their veterinarian. Tapeworms are an exception to that rule.
Tapeworms are different from other intestinal parasites. Most worms reproduce within the pet’s intestinal tract and then shed their eggs in the animal’s feces. A microscopic fecal exam is necessary to know whether or not a dog or cat has one of these types of worms. Tapeworms, on the other hand, shed entire segments of their bodies that contain their eggs.
Tapeworm segments are visible with the naked eye, looking something like flattened pieces of rice. Freshly shed tapeworm segments are soft and may be seen wiggling around in the fur around a pet’s anus or in the animal’s immediate surroundings (e.g., on bedding). After they’ve been “out” for a while, they stop moving and become harder, tinged with yellow, and somewhat translucent.
Because tapeworms shed body segments rather than individual eggs, the microscopic fecal examinations performed by veterinarians are actually not a very good way to diagnose whether or not tapeworms are present. Fecal examinations on pets with tapeworms often have false negative results.
If you think your pet has tapeworms, buy a deworming medication that contains praziquantel, epsiprantel, or fenbendazole and is labeled to work against tapeworms. Many products are available over-the-counter. Because the dosing instructions for tapeworms are sometimes different than for other intestinal parasites, make sure you read the label carefully and follow the instructions that are specifically aimed at getting rid of tapeworms.
Most pets get tapeworms because they have fleas. Fleas ingest tapeworm eggs. The tapeworms mature inside the flea to a stage where they can infect dogs and cats when the flea is eaten during self-grooming. Even if you don’t see fleas on your pet, it is very likely that they are present if your pet has tapeworms. Pets (especially cats) who hunt can also pick up tapeworms through eating rodents, birds, or rabbits who have ingested tapeworm eggs.
I’ve often heard owners complain that treatment for tapeworms didn’t work because they started seeing tapeworm segments again in just a few weeks. In almost all of these cases, I think the dewormer was effective in getting rid of the tapeworms that were present at the time, but the dog or cat quickly got reinfected. Dewormers have no preventive effect. The only way to stop dogs and cats from getting tapeworms again is to institute a good flea control program and/or stop them from hunting and eating rodents.
Tapeworms rarely make dogs and cats sick. If your pet doesn’t seem to feel well, I do not recommend treating for tapeworms. Make an appointment with your veterinarian instead.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Image: Best dog photo / Shutterstock