Tapeworms in Cats & Dogs: Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Sarah Phenix
In this lesson, we will get an overview of tapeworms and explore the symptoms and treatment of tapeworm infections in cats and dogs. A short quiz following the lesson will test your knowledge.

What is a Tapeworm?

If you've never seen or heard of a tapeworm, then you are in for quite a surprise with these not-so-little guys. The name tapeworm is actually the informal (common) name used to describe an entire group of tapelike flatworms included in the taxonomic class Cestoda.

Tapeworms belong to a group of worms known as helminths, or parasitic worms, and attach themselves to their host's intestines. Yes, you read that right; tapeworms are intestinal parasites. Cats and dogs can become infected by these worms after ingesting tapeworm-infected fleas, flea larvae, or flea feces. They can also get them from eating an infected intermediate host, such as a mouse or rabbit, or the feces of an infected animal.

What's extra interesting (or disgusting depending on who you are) is that there really are no limits to the length a tapeworm can grow. Their body, called the strobila, is made up of many tiny segments, called proglottids, that attach to a single head, called a scolex. The scolex has hooks and suckers that attach to an animal's intestines.

Adult Tapeworm Showing Proglottids
Adult Dog/Cat Tapeworm

The proglottids are reproductive segments, each being either male (producing sperm) or female (producing eggs). This means that they can break off and be excreted by the host and go on to infect other animals, while the parent tapeworm just keeps growing more proglottids. Each proglottid also has its own contractile fibers (like muscles) that can contract even when detached from the strobila, which is why some pet owners might see wriggling pieces in their pet's stool. Pretty gross, right?

Scolex Showing Hooks and Suckers
Scolex of Tapeworm

Symptoms of Tapeworm Infection

Cats and dogs don't generally show signs of severe tapeworm infection since owners usually notice the telltale signs quickly. The most obvious and common signs are white or brown, rice-like proglottid segments in their pet's stool (which may or may not be wriggling) as well as a ravenous appetite with no weight gain.

Yet another sign is the less socially acceptable scooting behavior, where the animal drags their bottom across the floor. While this isn't necessarily indicative of worms (it could be a sign of other issues, such as blocked anal glands) in pets, this behavior typically arises either from skin irritation caused by proglottids stuck in the fur around the anus or from sections of partially excreted strobila that the animal is attempting to dislodge.

If left untreated, more serious symptoms can arise, such as vomiting, diarrhea, and weight loss even after consuming normal amounts of food. These could also manifest as a dull coat and lethargy (tiredness) from lack of nutrients and could, if left untreated, eventually lead to death.

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