At the busiest moment of my Friday-afternoon’s office hours, an emergency phone call came in from a dear client who I’ll call Miss Jones. Normally soft-spoken and always very reserved, the elderly Miss Jones was now on the other end of the line screaming uncontrollably in what seemed to me a state of mortal terror. When finally I could ask her what was wrong, she screeched at the top of her lungs that she and Muffy (her pampered white Persian cat) were watching the Oprah Show on TV. Hoping to calm her down some, I sort of jokingly said that she shouldn’t watch Oprah if it scared her so much. I could tell by the short pause and her low growl that she wasn’t amused.
She continued on to say that as she was sitting there on her sofa, engrossed in the tragic plight of Oprah’s latest guest, she suddenly became aware of a cool wetness on her bare leg. Looking down toward little Muffy (who was sound asleep on her lap), she noticed to her absolute horror that a slimy little white worm had crawled out of the cat’s rear end, and was now scootching its way across her lower thigh.
From the description that she had given me, I told her it was probably just a simple tapeworm, but I’d like to see it just to make sure. Could she bring it in? She answered that this was no longer possible because she smashed the repulsive little critter beyond recognition with the TV remote control.
Tapeworm infection in dogs and cats is very common and, fortunately, the methods of diagnosing the disease are fairly simple. Most of the time, my clients will actually see the white and sometimes wiggling parasite in their pet’s feces. Other times, the owners will find only the dried, rice-like worm segments around the anus of the pet or on the furniture where the animal sleeps. Dogs will often drag their butts on the ground (scooting) to ease the irritation of the emerging worms. Sometimes the only clue an owner may have of a tapeworm infection is that their pet has a dull thin coat or a sickly appearance or is just not as active as usual.
A major culprit in the spread and continuous reinfection of tapeworms is the common flea. When I tell my clients this, I always get one of those looks of disbelief. But it’s true. Put very simply, a flea eats a tapeworm egg. This egg then hatches inside the flea and undergoes a couple of larval growth stages. Then, in the course of grooming itself, the dog or cat unknowingly eats the tapeworm-loaded flea and, in the course of digesting this flea, releases the tapeworm into the intestines. Here it attaches to the gut wall and sets up housekeeping. Your pet can also catch these parasites by eating rodents and consuming the uncooked meat and guts of tapeworm-infested domestic and wild animals.
Besides being just plain gross to look at, tapeworms can be a serious health risk to both pets and humans. Managing tapeworms should be part of a broader parasite control program that includes all of the nasty intestinal worms that our dogs and cats can get. Treating tapeworms with over-the-counter worm pills is rarely successful because the most common breed of worm is resistant to these products. The worm pills sold by most veterinarians are the only ones that will work with any reliability. Keeping fleas under control is also an important part of tapeworm management.