Tapeworm Infection – A Treatable Parasite In Dogs And Cats


Tapeworms can conjure up many images and thoughts of a ghastly infestation. However, in comparison to other intestinal worms it is probably the parasite with the least direct health problems. Although they compete with the infected pet for the nutrients of ingested food, they do not generally harm the host. Tapeworms, which include several types, reside in the intestines of dogs, cats, humans, rats, mice, fish and others animals. They consist of a head and a long flat body made up of segments. This body can be several feet long, if not more. Segments, each having the ability to reproduce, are passed in the animal’s feces, leaving the head still attached to the animal’s intestinal lining, where it produces new segments. One of the worst case scenarios is that if left untreated, it may become so long that it obstructs the intestines.

Fleas are the intermediate host for the tapeworm. In other words, the tapeworm is unable to complete it’s life cycle without the presence of fleas in the environment. Regardless of whether the owner may have seen fleas, the pet must have ingested a flea in order to have tapeworms. Consequently, tapeworms are more common in environments which are heavily infested with fleas.

As a general rule, tapeworm infection may not cause any noticeable illness in your pet, or it may show moderate signs of infection. These symptoms may produce digestive upsets, excessive or decreased appetite (depending on the pet), poor hair and skin coat (possible balding, red areas especially on the rump and feet), weight loss and vague signs of abdominal discomfort. But, what most owners who have had a pet with tapeworms can tell you is that the first thing you most likely notice is the 1/4 inch, whitish worms that may expand and contract in your pet’s stool. Or the cucumber seed-like or rice grain-like dried segments in their pet’s bedding area or clinging to the hair around their butt. From a vet’s observation, an owner will hedge on taking a pet for treatment, vaccinations and tests for ailments more serious than this parasite, but as soon as they see a segment in the feces, that pet can’t get into the office soon enough.

However disgusting it may be finding one of these segments, this is the best form of diagnosis there is since the eggs may not be found upon microscopic examination of the feces by your veterinarian. The reason being is that the nature of the worm’s ability to carry the eggs inside the segments and are not laid in the stool as are other worm’s eggs, which is how most intestinal worms are diagnosed.

The good news is that tapeworms are not passed directly from pet to pet, but require an intermediate host in which to develop. It is not transmitted by direct contact but by ingestion of an intermediate host either while eating or grooming. The bad news is that the common intermediate hosts are fleas and small animals, such as mice, rats, squirrels and rabbits.

Where do they come from?

There is no other way for a pet to get tapeworms except from fleas. Many people who had thought their pet could not possibly have fleas find out about the infestation this way. The tapeworm segment breaks open releasing its eggs. A larval flea consumes the egg along with the flea dirt that it normally eats. As the larval flea matures, so does the baby tapeworm. When a grooming dog or cat licks the flea and swallows it, the dead flea is digested in the dog’s stomach releasing the baby tapeworm. The tapeworm is passed to its new home in the dog or cat’s small intestine where it attaches and lives its life.

What do they look like?

TapewormThe adult tapeworm inside the pet be a half a foot or more long. It is made of small segments, each about the size of a grain of rice. The tapeworm’s head hooks onto the dog’s intestine by tiny teeth and the worm absorbs nutrients through its skin. Each segment contains a complete set of organs but as new segments grow in at the neck area and older segments progress to the tip of the tail, the organs disintegrate except for the reproductive organs. When the segment drops off from the tail tip, it is only a sac of eggs. Most commonly, owners recognize that the pet has tapeworms and bring this to the attention of the veterinarian. When terminal segments of the tapeworm break off and pass into the pet’s stool, they can be seen crawling on the surface of the feces. This segment is white and able to move when it is fresh and, at this time, looks like a grain of white rice. As the segment dries, it looks more like a sesame seed.


Available treatments are safe and effective. The deworming medication for the most common form of tapeworms in pets can be treated by a single injection or oral dosage (called an anthelmintic) available at your local veterinarian’s office. However, many clinics recommend a second injection in three weeks. The reason for the second injection is this: If the owner finds out at the time of their office visit that they need to control fleas to control tapeworms, they will need at least a month or so to control the fleas.

After treatment, the tapeworm dies and is usually digested within the intestine, so worm segments don’t usually pass into the stool. Side-effects, such as vomiting and diarrhea, are rarely reported with the newer medications.

Now, this does not mean that a pet will not get reinfected. In fact, if you do not eliminate the intermediate hosts (fleas, etc…) than you may experience the whole cycle again in as little as two weeks.

Control of fleas is the cornerstone of preventing tapeworm infection. With the new and exciting flea control products which have become available, this is now much easier than in years past. Depending on the type of product you use and the presence of other pets in your home, your veterinarian will help you decide whether you also need to treat your house and yard for fleas. With some of the newer products, environmental control of fleas may not be needed. Circumstances vary, however, so be sure to talk to your veterinarian.

If one pet has tapeworm, can it be assumed they all do?

No, just because one pet in the household has swallowed an infected flea does not mean they all have. Our recommendation is to deworm only the pets who have obvious tapeworms.

Control of the environment is the key.

1. Fleas must be eliminated from both the pet and the environment, preferably before bringing them home from the vet.

2. Apply a flea control to your pet but check with your vet as to which they recommend since improper or prolonged usage to most flea products can cause health problems.

3. Don’t forget to treat the inside and outside, especially the bedding area with a flea control.

4. If your pet’s a hunter at heart, don’t allow them to eat small rodents or raw fish.

5. For maintainence, use a fine tooth flea comb to inspect for infestation and to destroy stragglers. Remember, even one infected flea can cause tapeworms. You may find it useful to dip the flea comb in rubbing alcohol to stun the fleas (unless you’re very fast). Though this may not be advised for sensitive skin.

Life's Abundance Wellness Food Supplement for Dogs
6. A Daily Supplement may help your pet restore what nutrients were lost to the tapeworms. Your vet may even give an injectable vitamin to help boost a pet’s system more rapidly. We recommend Life’s Abundance Wellness Food Supplements

Why might your pet continue to get tapeworm?

While many people would like to blame the medication as having been ineffective, the truth is that there must be an ongoing flea population in the pet’s environment. The key to getting rid of tapeworms from the home is flea control.

Notify the Doctor if Any of the Following Occur:

  • Your pet vomits or has diarrhea.
  • Tapeworm segments are still seen after the prescribed treatment.
  • Your pet continues to lose weight.
  • Your pet continues to have hair loss.

Tapeworms are a frustrating and disgusting ailment because fleas are usually involved. Perservance usually pays off but it’s not an easy nor pleasant road.