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Ask a Vet: Can My Dog Safely Play with a Dog That Has Tapeworms?

These disgusting creatures live and feed in intestines. While dogs can't contract tapeworms by direct exposure (whew!), you still have to be careful.

 |  Apr 17th 2012  |   1 Contribution


Dogster reader Charlotte recently sent in the following question:

One of our dogs we just got from a rescue has tapeworms. What kind of cleanup do we need to do inside the house and in the yard? We already pick up poop and dispose of it in a container. Can the infected dog play and eat with the noninfected dog?

Tapeworms are, in my experience, the second-most commonly encountered parasites of dogs. They are second, by a mile, to fleas -- and a feature of their lifecycle ensures that they will not ascend beyond the number two position. That's because the most common type of tapeworm is spread by fleas.

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Those grains of "rice" you're finding in your bed? Ugh...
Tapeworms are disgusting organisms to be sure. They live and feed in the intestines. These worms consist of large numbers of segments in a row. The segments at the back of the worm contain eggs. These segments are shed in the feces, or that move out of the anus under their own steam. The shedded segments initially look like grains of rice that move and crawl.  Over time the segments dry up and look more like sesame seeds.

Tapeworm segments tend to accumulate on pet bedding, and that's bad news for people who allow tapeworm-infested dogs on their beds. I have seen more than one client recoil in horror after learning that the "rice grains" he was finding in his bed had emerged from his dog's anus.

Here's the good news for all dog owners, and especially for those who have rice grains or sesame seeds on their pillows: Tapeworms are not directly contagious. Those grains and seeds are disgusting (and they are covered with nasty bacteria), but you and your non-infested dogs will not contract tapeworms by exposure to them.

Tapeworms require intermediate hosts. After the segments are passed in the feces or crawl out of the anus, they must be consumed by another organism -- the intermediate host. The most common tapeworm, by far, involves fleas as the secondary culprit. The tapeworm then matures for a bit in the flea, and then is ready to infest any dog, cat, or human that ingests the flea.  And yes, there have been documented cases of humans (mostly young children) who eat fleas and develop tapeworms.

Less common (in America) tapeworms use other species (usually canine or feline prey animals) as intermediate hosts.

Charlotte, as far as tapeworms go, your new dog poses basically no threat. Decontamination of the house and yard generally aren't necessary.

What you need to do is focus on the intermediate hosts. That means good flea control for every pet every month. The rarer tapeworms can be prevented by not allowing you dog to hunt and consume his own food (which most won't do if they're properly fed).

Remember that tapeworm segments are mobile and they are absolutely encrusted with potentially dangerous bacteria.  Any bedding (human or pet) that has been exposed to tapeworms should be washed, and basic hygiene procedures should be followed.  But in your circumstances a thorough decontamination should not be necessary.

Photo via Shutterstock: Dog in bed

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