If you are the squeamish kind – I apologize. You may want to skip this article. Unless you’re a dog owner. Then you may want to continue reading. Not while eating though. This story will be a bit gross. Fascinating, in a horrifying sort of way, but definitely gross. You have been warned.
It all started with some little white bits I noticed clinging to Sunday’s backside (Sunday is my dog/sidekick/blog mascot). Now mind you, random bits of whatnot on Sunday are not an unusual occurrence. We live in a fairly rural country area and both of us are outside a lot. While I work in the garden, she often likes to rummage through the weeds and brush snuffling after critters – when not standing guard against said critters of course. As such, Sunday often gets covered in plant bits, hitchhiker type seeds, old leaves, and occasionally a slug in the wrong place at the wrong time – you get the picture. We just brush or pull things off when we go back inside. Typical dog owner activities. So, when I first found some cylindrical, small, dry white things on Sunday, I just brushed them off and we went about our business. This was a mistake.
Although I originally thought these little white things were plant bits or seeds, I soon started finding more and more of them in the house, particularly on the places where Sunday likes to sit and lay. Still not super unusual if she went through a thicket or something, but I also found more on her. It was a little strange… And then… Then I found one of these white things near her backside that wasn’t dry and seed-like. It was a squishy version of the little white things I’d been finding :gross: Definitely not a seed, but I also didn’t know what it was. I was officially suspicious though, and really took a close look at the squishy thing I had just found. It appeared to have an opening at one end, but no real other markings. My next course of action was to Google it to try to find similar looking photos. It actually took me a while, but I finally found a couple photos that looked similar. I did not like what I found.
It appeared that we (Sunday specifically), may have somehow managed to get tapeworms. Tapeworms (Eucestoda) are a whole subclass (= high rank taxonomic category) of internally parasitic flatworms. Parasites are a type of animal that requires a host organism in order to survive. Tapeworm parasites actually require not just one host, but two different hosts, a “definitive” host and an “intermediate” host, to complete their strange life cycle. First, the eggs of the tapeworm need to get eaten by the intermediate host. Once ingested, these eggs hatch inside the intermediate host and penetrate the host’s intestines to continue development. The parasites cannot reproduce in the intermediate host though, and need a second host species to complete their life cycle. Transfer of the parasite to the second “definitive” host species is often accomplished by the intermediate host getting eaten by the definitive host. Once in the definitive host, the parasite attaches itself to the new host’s intestinal wall, feeds, and prepares to reproduce.
Tapeworms reproduce by basically just breaking off many small segments of their bodies filled with eggs to reproduce. These disconnected segments of the tapeworm filled with eggs are called proglottids, or gravid proglottids. Proglottids can either be passively passed through the host’s digestive tract (aka they get pooped out), or they can be mobile and actually crawl out of the host’s bum 😱! I did warn you this would get gross… Once out of the definitive host, the tapeworm proglottid dries up and releases tons of eggs - which just wait for another intermediate host to either eat the egg laden feces from the last host, or the grass, or something else nearby that has gotten eggs smeared on it. Then the cycle repeats.
While there are at least several thousand different species of tapeworm in the world, each potentially requiring a different host or host combination, there are two species in the US that dogs commonly get. The Flea Tapeworm (also called the double-pored tapeworm or cucumber tapeworm), Dipylidium caninum, and the Rabbit Tapeworm, Taenia pisiformis. Both tapeworm species can use dogs as a definitive host. The Flea Tapeworm, as you can probably guess from the name, uses fleas as its intermediate host. Now, while we do not have fleas in our house (we’re on preventatives and I check), we do have a ton of wild critters (squirrels, rabbits, mice, moles, deer, raccoons, coyote, even a groundhog that’s recently moved in) around outside that could have fleas that may have temporarily jumped onto Sunday for her to bite at and swallow. The Rabbit Tapeworm uses rabbits and a variety of rodents as intermediate hosts. And as I just said, we have a ton of all of those… Sunday is also quite a good scavenger – she can smell a dead animal from like a mile away, and if she gets to it before me, likes to scarf down a few bites before I take it away. This is a common way the Rabbit Tapeworm gets transmitted from an intermediate host to its definitive host. The proglottids of both tapeworms look pretty similar, so without a full adult tapeworm (which doesn’t leave the host), it’s difficult to tell which tapeworm is the most likely candidate for our troubles.
After the potential identification of our mystery white pellets as tapeworms, I conducted a more thorough examination of Sunday’s backside. I found a whole bunch more of the dry white grain like things (most likely proglottids) stuck in her fur all around her rear end. Not attached mind you, just kind of tangled or wedged in between her hairs. I pulled them all off, took a picture and called our vet. The vet couldn’t definitively confirm from the photo that they were tapeworms, but said I could bring in a fecal sample (aka poop sample) to be tested for parasites. The vet also asked if Sunday had any other symptoms, like bum scooting, unusual appetite, or lethargy. Nope, Sunday seemed happy as a clam… Maybe some extra bum sniffing/licking? Nothing particularly noticeable or unusual though. So I took a fecal sample in for the vet to test (this is how veterinarians usually test for internal parasites) and we waited to hear back about the results.
While waiting to get our results, which at this point I was pretty sure would be positive, I found something even more gross than all the dry, or the couple squishy, white things that I suspected were tapeworm egg packets. So, so, SO, much more gross. I found a much larger, completely slimy, actively moving, worm-like thing on Sunday!! I pulled it off (again, not attached to her, just kind of stuck to her like a slug would be), but this time used a leaf and didn’t handle it directly since I now suspected that it had emerged from a less than clean orifice… It was kind of horrifyingly fascinating to watch this parasite move and crawl about (maybe squirm about?). Definitely super gross though… The video is at the end of this story if you want to see it – I highly recommend not watching while eating….
We got the test results back from the vet a couple days later. The vet said that the test results were negative for parasites?! Now normally of course a negative result is what you want to get from a vet or doctor, but at this point I was totally convinced that we had tapeworms. There was nothing else the creepy moving worm thing on Sunday could be – plus all the dry or occasionally squishy inert white grain looking things that I kept finding on her or her bed. So I asked my vet if we could get treatment for tapeworms anyway. I had sent them multiple pictures of what I was finding, and brought in some of the egg packets for them to look at. Although they agreed that they looked like some kind of parasite, they just couldn’t confirm that they were in my dog since the test was negative. It’s important to note that fecal tests for tapeworms can often show a false negative due to the worm’s life cycle. The tapeworms don’t continuously release proglottids/eggs all the time. They go in spurts and only reproduce when they’re ready. And for a positive parasite test, you need to actually have some of the parasites or eggs in the fecal sample. So if the worms aren’t reproducing at the exact time you grab a sample, then the test will be negative. Even if you’ve found lots of other evidence to support that you have a worm issue.
Thankfully, we have a really good vet clinic we regularly go to, so when we asked if we could get treatment for tapeworms despite the negative test, they said yes. It was actually really easy to treat for the tapeworms too. I thought we might need some special dewormer or something, but the vet said some heartworm preventatives actually treat tapeworms as well. For those of you non-furbaby parents, heartworm preventatives are medication most dogs and cats need to take on a regular basis to prevent heartworms, a different type of internal parasite, but one that is super common (spread by mosquitoes) and can be deadly to pets. So, to treat the tapeworms, we just switched to the different heartworm preventative the vet recommended for a month… Switching medications for a month seemed to work almost immediately. I haven’t found a single egg packet or any other evidence of worms ever since we took the other heartworm preventative and now we’ve been switched back to our regular heartworm preventative for a couple months. Hopefully this will be the last time we ever see such creepy crawlies, but at least now I know what to look for. And more importantly, how to get rid of the parasites. I think I’ll keep blaming the groundhog for the infestation though – it’s the only new critter on the property…
There are many, many different parasites that can attack both humans and pets. While the tapeworms Sunday got weren’t super serious, many parasites can be deadly if left untreated. If you suspect for any reason that you or your pet may have been infected with something, please seek medical attention for your or your pet immediately.
To learn more about tapeworms, check out these resources:
Super creepy, but also fascinating, video of the tapeworm moving:
You can help!
Want to help scientists and medical professionals collect data about parasites? Check out these citizen science projects on Notes from Nature! There is currently a nationwide initiative, the Terrestrial Parasite Tracker project, to try and make parasite data digitally available to anyone with an internet connection. Collecting and making this data digitally available (instead of just hidden in museum specimen cabinets somewhere) will make it much easier for scientists to track changes in parasite distributions, monitor species introductions into new places, discover important changes in host preferences, and generally help with the control and tracking of parasites. You can help by becoming a citizen scientist! Check out the Terrestrial Parasite Tracker projects on Notes from Nature to get started - no previous experience is needed. Just the will to want to help :)
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