Echinococcus granulosus is a tapeworm of dogs that causes a condition known as hydatid disease or hydatidosis in humans. The parasite is found in many parts of the world, and is very common in some regions of southern South America, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, southwestern Asia, northern Africa and Australia. To the best of our knowledge, E. granulosus does not occur in southern Ontario, but it is present in other parts of Canada including the western provinces and northern Ontario. A related, but much nastier, tapeworm called Echinococcus multilocularis is much less commonly found in North America.
A previous Worms & Germs post described what is known as the sylvatic cycle of Echinococcus granulosus, which is thought to be a common route of infection for dogs in Canada. In the sylvatic cycle, dogs become infected with Echinococcus by eating the internal organs (usually lungs and liver) of wild game such as moose and caribou. The dogs then pass tapeworm eggs in their stool, which can cause infection in other wild animals (thus continuing the cycle) or in people who accidentally swallow the eggs. In humans, Echinococcus forms slow-growing cysts (called hydatid cysts) in different organs of the body which can be very difficult to remove or treat in some cases.
Echinococcus also has a pastoral or domestic cycle. In this cycle, dogs acquire the parasite by eating the internal organs of infected sheep, and sometimes other livestock such as cattle and swine. This cycle is potentially very important in areas where there is a lot of sheep farming. In some areas of Latin America, 20-95% of sheep at slaughter may have evidence of hydatid cysts in their organs.
It is much more difficult to tell when a dog is infected with Echinococcus compared to other tapeworms such as Taenia or Dipylidium. An adult Echinococcus is tiny - only a few milimetres long (see picture right), very unlike the long, stringy white tapeworms that most people picture. Dogs can carry hundreds, even thousands of these tiny tapeworms without showing any signs of illness at all. The eggs can sometimes be difficult to detect on fecal examinations, and when they are seen they cannot be differentiated from Taenia eggs. Nonetheless, this is still the best way to detect infection, so fecal examinations should be performed regularly.
- In areas where Echinococcus is known to exist, it's important to have your veterinarian perform fecal examinations on your dog's stool more frequently than the usual once-a-year, because of the serious zoonotic potential of this parasite.
- Always wash your hands well after handling dog stools.
- Do not let your dog eat uncooked meat, or the organs from farm animals or wild game.
For more information on Echinococcus, see Worms & Germs post entitled Echinococcus and hydatid disease - not your average tapeworm. There is also information available on the Michigan State Department of Natural Resources site.
Lower photo credit: Ontario Veterinary College