Finding a tapeworm in a pet’s stool can be a concerning event for some people. Tapeworms are intestinal parasites that can be found in varying percentages of dogs and cats. A common tapeworm (at least in North America) in dogs and cats is called Dipylidium caninum, and it can be found in a high proportion of dogs and cats in some regions, particularly animals that go outside and are infested with fleas. There is minimal concern about transmission of this tapeworm to people. Taenia pisiformis (dogs) and Taenia taeniaeformis (cats) are also common, and neither of these can infect people.
People typically realize their pet has tapeworms when they see small tapeworm segments in the animal’s stool. These whitish, rice-sized pieces (called proglottids, see the picture on the right) are parts of the adult tapeworm, which break off and are passed in the stool.
Tapeworms are not usually harmful to dogs and cats, particularly if only one or a few worms are present. In some situations, weight loss can occur. Affected animals may ‘scoot’ (drag their rear end across the ground) because of irritation from tapeworm segments that are passed in the stool.
Diagnosis of a tapeworm infestation is easiest through identification of tapeworm segments in stool. Identification of tapeworm eggs in stool samples through routine testing used for other intestinal parasites is less useful, as the bare eggs are infrequently shed in stool. Therefore, a negative fecal egg examination does not rule out tapeworms.
Dipylidium infections are extremely rare in people. Children are at greatest risk. Disease in people, if present, is usually mild and easily treated. However, finding tapeworms in a person’s stool can be distressing to the individual (and their family). Dipylidium cannot be transmitted directly from animals to people. People and pets get infected by ingesting a flea that is infected with tapeworm larvae. Therefore, flea control is the most important aspect of tapeworm prevention. People that find tapeworm segments in their stool should contact their physician to determine whether they are actually tapeworms (people often mistake other things for tapeworm segments) and to determine whether any treatment is needed.
There are specific dewormers that can be prescribed by your veterinarian to eliminate tapeworms in pets. It is also important to take measures to control fleas and prevent dogs and cats from catching and eating animals that might be carrying fleas.