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The tapeworm, also called flatworm or helminth, is a parasitic worm that can get relatively large so that you can see it with the naked eye when it is mature. These parasites attach themselves to the inside of the lizard’s intestinal tract and feed off the food your pet eats. There are thousands of species of tapeworms and some can get up to 65 feet long in some animals, but they will not grow that large in a lizard. However, they are capable of growing large enough to cause abdominal discomfort, lack of appetite, weight loss, and other symptoms.
Tapeworms (Cestode parasitesin) are commonly found in lizards that are living in the wild with minimal effects, but captive lizards are not so lucky. These parasites are long (they can range from five inches to 65 feet long) flat, white worms that look like ribbons. Although tapeworms are usually not serious in wild lizards, there have been cases of severe weight loss and death in those that are captive. In captivity, tapeworms are harder to get rid of because the lizard is basically trapped in there with the worms with no way of escape. That is why it is so important to routinely clean your pet’s enclosure and provide regular veterinary visits.
The symptoms can range from mild to severe, with the most common being:
There are thousands of types of tapeworm, but the most common ones that affect lizards include:
The veterinarian will start by asking you about your pet’s medical and immunization records, any recent illnesses or injury, and then do a comprehensive and detailed physical examination. Examining your lizard inside their enclosure will be done first to assess the health and body condition while relaxed. Then the veterinarian will have the veterinary technician grasp your lizard by applying pressure to the back of the eyes while supporting the body to get your pet to relax. This automatic behavior is called the vaso-vagal response and will calm your lizard within a few seconds so the veterinarian can do the examination. The respiration and heart rate will automatically decrease so the veterinarian can examine your pet without causing undue stress. A physical examination will be done which includes auscultation and palpation, vital signs, checking the hemipenal area, urine and stool sample, body score, and skin condition. On examination the veterinarian may be able to find proglottids in the cloacal area or eggs may be found in the feces. Venipuncture will likely be used to collect blood for routine laboratory tests such as a blood culture, complete blood count (CBC), and chemical panel. In some cases, the veterinarian may also want to get some abdominal radiographs (x-rays) or an ultrasound to rule out other conditions.
Treating tapeworms in lizards is pretty straightforward in most cases (without complications). There are several types of drugs that are known to be effective in getting rid of these parasites, but only your veterinarian can tell you which one is the best for your pet. If your lizard has any complications such as dehydration or anemia, these will have to be treated as well. Intravenous fluid therapy in the hospital and medication are usually necessary.
There are a few drugs that are good for treating tapeworms, which may include an anthelmintic (dewormer) praziquantel given by mouth or injection, niclosamide, or bunamidine. Most medications should be repeated at certain intervals to assure removal of any larvae that have progressed to the adult stages in the intestinal tract. The treatment has to be repeated in 10 to 14 days to kill the worms that have recently hatched.
The veterinarian will give your lizard intravenous (IV) fluids to prevent dehydration and administer nutrients and electrolytes. Your veterinarian will likely keep your pet in the hospital during fluid therapy for observation and supplemental treatment.
You will have to sterilize and treat your lizard’s enclosure and everything inside of it. If there are any items made of wood or other porous material, they will need to be discarded because there is no way to decontaminate this type of material. You will need to bring your pet back in two weeks to make sure the worms are gone.
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