A previous Worms & Germs post talked about the (very low) zoonotic risk of the tapeworm most commonly found in dogs and cats, Dipylidium caninum. Dogs can also carry other species of tapeworm, such as Taenia pisiformis, which cannot be naturally transmitted to people. But dogs can also carry tapeworms from the genus Echinococcus, the most common of which is E. granulosus. Echinococcus multilocularis is much less common in North America, and can also be carried by cats.
In Canada, dogs tend to be exposed to E. granulosus when they eat certain animals, particularly wild herbivores like moose and caribou. In other parts of the world, eating sheep organs is the most common way dogs are exposed. The immature form of the worm is found in the animal’s lungs, liver and other tissues. After being eaten by the dog, the worm matures in the intestine, and tapeworm eggs can soon be found in the dog’s stool. Tapeworm segments, as seen with Dipylidium infection, are usually not seen in the stool with Echinococcus. Under a microscope, it is possible to tell Dipylidium eggs from Echinococcus eggs, but it is not possible to tell Echinococcus eggs from Taenia eggs.
If a moose, caribou, sheep or another suitable “intermediate host” swallows the eggs from the dog stool, the parasite migrates through the animal’s body and forms cysts in various tissues which contain the immature form of the worm. If the animal dies or is killed, and a dog (or a wolf or coyote or related species) eats the cysts, the cycle begins again.
Unfortunately, humans can also be an “intermediate host” for these tapeworms. If a person ingests Echinococcus eggs from dog stool, the parasite can form cysts (called hydatid cysts) in many tissues and organs, including the liver, lungs, brain and heart. If the cysts are small and there are only a few, they may not cause any problems for years, and the person may never know they’re there. But as the cysts grow, they can get very large and start to interfere with the function of organs, or their size alone may be a problem, depending on where they are located. Treatment can be difficult – drugs are frequently not effective, and large problematic cysts may need to be surgically removed, if the surgery can be done safely. If a cyst bursts it can cause anaphylactic shock, which is very dangerous.
In Canada, Echinococcus infection and hydatid disease are most common in the western provinces. Nonetheless, everyone can take a few simple steps to help prevent exposure of people to Echinococcus:
- Always wash your hands after handling dog stool, even if you use a plastic bag or a scoop to pick it up.
- Your dog should have a fecal examination for intestinal parasites at least once per year, or more frequently if your dog is at increased risk of exposure to Echinococcus. If tapeworm eggs are identified, your veterinarian can prescribe medication to treat the infection.
- Monthly heartworm preventatives that are effective against other intestinal worms are not effective against tapeworms!
- Do not let your dog eat uncooked meat, especially the organs of sheep or wild game such as moose and caribou.
More information on Echinococcus and hydatid disease is available on the CDC’s Echinococcosis webpage.