Intestinal parasites like tapeworms are common in many dogs, but can be treated safely and effectively with help from your veterinarian. Find out how to diagnose, treat, and prevent tapeworms in your dog.

By Sarah Mouton Dowdy
August 24, 2020
Advertisement
AMR Image / Getty

Tapeworms in dogs are gross but common. Dogs get this intestinal parasite when they eat infected fleas or infected small animals. The worms are divided into segments that break off and look similar to grains of rice moving around in the dog’s poop. Luckily, tapeworms rarely cause disease in dogs, and both treatment and prevention are relatively simple. 

What Are Tapeworms? 

Tapeworms are long, flat, white segmented parasites with hook-like mouth parts that they use to attach themselves to the intestinal walls of pets, says Jessica Nichols, DVM, who is the chief veterinary officer of Spay and Neuter Kansas City in Kansas City, Mo. While there are multiple types, or species, of tapeworms that can infect dogs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists Dipylidium caninum as the most common one in the United States.  However, the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC), an independent nonprofit led by veterinary professionals and parasite experts, adds that Taenia species are also common in North America. 

Wondering what tapeworms look like, and how to identify them if you suspect your dog is infected? It might be easier to spot these parasites than you think. According to Nichols, adult tapeworms will shed segments of their body (called proglottids) into the infected dog’s poop. These segments are fairly easy to spot with the naked eye—they tend to look like grains of rice that move, she explains. Proglottids from Dipylidium caninum look so similar to cucumber seeds that the species is often referred to as the cucumber seed tapeworm

Tapeworm segments are commonly seen in the dog’s poop, near his rear end, and in his living area (like bedding or his favorite spot to perch on the couch). If you spot them, act quickly with a call to your veterinarian—these little segments will eventually break open to release tapeworm eggs into the environment. Gross!

How Do Dogs Get Tapeworms?

If you spot signs of tapeworms, you’ll probably want to know how the parasite infected your pup. Dogs are infected with tapeworms through an intermediate host. In other words, dogs aren’t directly infected from interacting with the eggs that are released into the environment. The eggs must first be eaten by an intermediate host—like fleas or rodents—and then the dog becomes infected by eating the host. 

Can Humans Get Tapeworms From Dogs?

According to the CDC, humans can become infected with Dipylidium caninum, though it’s very rare. People (typically children) get the parasite the same way dogs do—by accidentally eating an infective flea. Additionally, the CAPC says that while isolated reports of people infected with canine tapeworms exist, the overall risk in the United States is extremely low. 

How Can You Tell if Your Dog Has Tapeworms?

Nichols says that more often than not, dogs with tapeworms won’t have any signs or symptoms. The most common clinical sign pet owners notice is the presence of little white proglottids in their dog’s poop or around the dog’s rear end. However, dogs may also experience irritation and itchiness around their rear end (due to passing the proglottids in their poop), and dogs infested with a lot of worms can end up with blocked intestines. 

Unfortunately, Nichols notes, the routine fecal exams that are often a part of your dog’s wellness visits—called fecal float tests—aren’t as reliable at detecting tapeworms. This means pet owners play a crucial role in catching tapeworm infections. If you spot proglottids in your dog’s waste, it’s time to call your veterinarian. 

How are Tapeworms Treated?

If your veterinarian confirms the presence of tapeworms, expect your pup to be treated with a dewormer. The treatment of choice for Dipylidium caninum is typically either praziquantel or epsiprantel. These drugs kill tapeworms without harming your pet, and both may be given by mouth (though praziquantel can also be delivered via injection). 

Nichols says she always recommends flea preventatives for patients with tapeworms, and she always considers a tapeworm treatment for dogs with fleas, since the two parasites tend to go hand-in-hand. Praziquantel and epsiprantel are also approved for the treatment of Taenia species infections in dogs, and fenbendazole (another dewormer) can also be used to treat Taenia pisiformis.  

How to Prevent Tapeworms in Dogs

According to Nichols, the best way to prevent tapeworms in dogs is to keep your pets on a year-round flea preventative. Many monthly heartworm preventatives also protect against both Taenia and Dipylidium infections. Your veterinarian will work with you to find the best options for your pet. It’s also a good idea to prevent your dog from hunting rodents and rabbits that may be carrying the parasite.