Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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The Tapeworm: An Unusual Intestinal Parasite

Pet Column for the week of August 13, 2001

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

The tapeworm's life cycle is very different from most other kinds of intestinal parasites that commonly infect cats and dogs.

According to Dr. Allan Paul, a veterinary parasitologist at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, unlike most intestinal parasites, tapeworms cannot be contracted directly from eggs found in the soil or in fecal material. Instead, these parasites are contracted when the dog or cat eats a secondary carrier of the tapeworm, such as a flea or a rodent that is infected with a tapeworm. Once inside the intestine these worms grow larger and feed off of the digesting material present in the intestine. Because the worm is consuming the nutrients intended for the animal, sometimes weight loss can occur.

Other types of intestinal parasites are usually diagnosed when the veterinarian performs a fecal examination and identifies under a microscope the eggs of the parasite. Tapeworm eggs; however, are rarely seen in a fecal examination. Tapeworm infestation is usually diagnosed when the owner or veterinarian sees what look like small, white grains of rice in the stool, or notices what look like sesame seeds stuck in the hair of the pet. The "grains of rice" are actually pieces of the worm called segments, and the "sesame seeds" are segments that have dried up and become stuck in the hair. These segments break off periodically and exit the intestine in the feces.

The segments carry the eggs that eventually develop into new tapeworms. Once the segment is outside of the body, it begins to disintegrate until only the eggs are left. Eventually, the eggs are ingested by the larvae of fleas and remain in the body of the flea, growing and developing as the flea does. When the adult flea is ingested by another cat or dog in the process of grooming, the tapeworm is introduced into the new animal and the cycle begins all over again. This type of tapeworm can also be carried by mice and rabbits, so a dog or cat may also become infected if it eats one of these animals.

Dr. Paul says, "While the tapeworm usually does not represent a serious threat to cats and dogs, it can cause weight loss and can be very irritating." It can be easily removed with a medication prescribed by your veterinarian.

If you suspect that your pet may have a tapeworm or you have any questions regarding intestinal parasites, contact you local veterinarian.