What comes to mind when you hear the word Tapeworms? Immediate thought…gross? Perhaps, you think of a strange diet-fad of long ago? But, do you think of fleas? Hold that thought, we’ll get to it in just a moment.
So, what exactly are tapeworms? Dipylidium caninum is the most common species of tapeworm found in dogs & cats. They are flat worms that live freely in the intestinal tract of unfortunate hosts. Their hook-like mouthparts allow them to attach to the wall. Dipylidium caninum can reach up to 8 inches long, which is about the size of your toothbrush. Ick! They are made up of many small segments that begin to develop starting behind the head. As these segments (also called proglottids) mature, they shed off the opposite end of the worm. The proglottids are then passed in the feces when an infected animal has a bowel movement.
This is the point where one is alerted to the fact that something is going on! If you are looking at your pet’s stool, you may see what looks like grains of rice or cucumber seeds. Sometimes, they can be seen moving! These are the proglottids. Once these segments dry, they eventually break open and release fertilized eggs into the environment.
Naturally, one assumes that in order to become infected with tapeworms, the pet must eat the fertilized tapeworm eggs. But, you would be wrong! Here are where the fleas come in to the picture. After the eggs are in the environment, they have to be swallowed by immature flea larvae. Once it’s inside the flea, the tapeworm egg develops as the flea matures. We all know that animals with fleas tend to scratch, bite, chew, and lick their bodies to relieve the itch. Sometimes, during that process, they will ingest an infected adult flea and thus acquire a tapeworm infection.
Tapeworm infections are easily treated with medication. However, they can recur if the fleas are not treated! Make sure your pet is on a monthly flea preventive!