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Tapeworm infections of the small intestines of dogs and cats are typically caused by adult fleas when ingested by dogs or cats. Tapeworms in dogs are less common than in the cat, probably because of their feeding habits and environmental restrictions. They represent a minority of the parasites seen in the dog but do occur regularly. Tapeworms are often described as looking like "grains of rice". They are flat, usually ½" or shorter, and can be seen crawling out of the rectum, or moving on freshly defecated stool. They are very itchy, and cause the pet to drag their rears on the ground to scratch. Owners find the tapeworm segments unsightly, as they crawl from the anus periodically and stick to the pet's hairs.
The adult tapeworm lives in the small intestine of the dog or cat. It hooks onto the intestinal wall with its six rows of teeth to grab on with. Most people are confused about the size of a tapeworm because they only see its segments which are small; the entire tapeworm is usually 6 inches or more. A segment carrying a sac of eggs is passed through the rectum and this is what people see. The segment is the size of a grain of rice and is able to move. Eventually the segment will dry and look more like a sesame seed. The sac breaks and tapeworm eggs are released. These eggs are not infectious to mammals. The tapeworm must reach a specific stage of development before it can infect a mammal.
Fleas are generally hatching in this vicinity and the flea larvae do not pay close attention to what they eat and innocently consume tapeworm eggs. As the flea progresses in its development, the tapeworm inside the flea is also progressing in development. By the time the flea is an adult, the tapeworm is ready to infect a dog or cat. The young tapeworm is only infectious to its mammal host at this stage of its development. The flea goes about its usual business, namely sucking its host’s blood, when to its horror, it is licked away by the host and swallowed. Inside the host’s stomach, the flea’s body is digested away and the young tapeworm is released. It finds a nice spot to attach and the life cycle begins again. It takes 3 weeks from the time the flea is swallowed to the time tapeworm segments appear on the pet’s rear end or stool.
**Controlling fleas is essential to prevent recurring infections with this species of tapeworm**