Fox tapeworm on the rise in Canada

We spoke to an expert to learn more about Echinococcus multilocularis – a new type of tapeworm that’s popping up across Canada. Should you be concerned?

The word “tapeworm” probably makes you cringe – and rightly so. This parasitic flatworm lives in the intestines of its human and animal hosts, and can cause fatal infections if left untreated. Most savvy dog owners are aware of the risk of tapeworm, and take steps to protect their animals from infestation. But the rise of a certain tapeworm – Echinococcus multilocularis, otherwise known as fox or coyote tapeworm – is on the rise in Canada.

And dogs aren’t the only ones at risk. Humans can be exposed to this parasite through exposure to infected feces from foxes, coyotes and even their own canine companions. Without timely treatment, infection with this parasite in people has a fatality rate as high as 90% and cure rate of just 5%.

To learn more about the risk of fox tapeworm, we spoke to veterinary parasitologist Dr. Andrew Peregrine from the University of Guelph.

AW: What is Echinococcus multilocularis?

AP: Echinococcus multilocularis is a small tapeworm, commonly called the fox/coyote tapeworm, that can normally be found in Canids (Coyotes, Foxes, Dogs) and small rodents.

AW: What are the risks to humans and dogs?

AP: If humans or dogs get infected with the tapeworm by accidentally ingesting fox or coyote tapeworm eggs (in the feces of foxes, coyotes or dogs), they can develop tumour-like lesions in their liver which can be fatal. Alveolar echinococcosis, the medical name for the infection, is a slow progressing disease, but can be serious if ignored and is often difficult to treat. Symptoms in people include malaise, weight loss, upper right quad pain, and jaundice.

AW: How can humans and dogs avoid contracting tapeworm?

AP: There are many different dewormers for dogs – some are given orally, some are given orally and must be given with food, some are given topically on the skin. It would be best if the person speaks to their veterinarian who can provide specific recommendations for administering specific dewormers. Pet owners should also be sure to not allow their pets to wander freely and unobserved to ensure they do not capture and eat small rodents or eat another animal’s fecal matter, and be sure to wash their own hands thoroughly after handling their pets and before handling food.

AW: Should pet parents be concerned about the current prevalence of the fox/coyote tapeworm in Canada? In which provinces is it the most prevalent?

AP: While they should not be panicked, the increase in prevalence of the tapeworm over the last few years is cause for concern and is something that should be on the radar of pet parents across the country – especially in Ontario and Alberta where the tapeworm has been found. Prior to 2012, alveolar echinococcosis had never been diagnosed in wildlife or domestic animals in Ontario, but between 2012 and 2016, multiple dogs have been diagnosed with the disease. The tapeworm is also prevalent in wild canids in Alberta, found in up to 60% of urban coyotes in the province.

AW: What are some common misconceptions about tapeworms that pet parents should be aware of?

AP: Pertaining to Echinococcus multilocularis specifically, pet parents should know that heartworm-only medications in Canada currently do not protect against the deadly fox/coyote tapeworm. They should consult their veterinarian and ask how they can protect their pets and family with a product that offers a full range of protection.

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