Parasitic infections in veterinary medicine are common diseases that most cat owners will deal with at some point. While some parasites can make our feline friends pretty sick, feline tapeworms rarely cause significant illness.
Nonetheless, the sight of little wriggly tapeworm segments in the litter box is pretty gross! While most feline tapeworm infections generally don’t make cats very sick, there is a risk for your cat to develop more serious health problems depending on the severity of the infection.
Cats aren’t the only ones that are prone to infection either! There is a small risk that a cat can pass a tapeworm infection to humans.
For the sake of everyone’s health, it’s best to clear up a tapeworm infection to be able to keep everyone in your household (two and four legged creatures alike!) happy and healthy.
Parasitology 101 (Everything About Tapeworms)
Tapeworms are a class of parasitic flatworms known as Cestoda.
There are a few types of tapeworms that we see in cats. We will focus mostly on the more common type of tapeworm in this article.
Dipylidium caninum, also known as the common tapeworm or the flea tapeworm, is the most common tapeworm that we see in cats in North America. It is carried by fleas. An infection in your cat occurs when it ingests fleas that are carrying the larval stage of the tapeworm.
Flea bites are annoying and cats can easily swallow the fleas in the process of licking or gnawing on irritated skin.
Once inside the cat’s body, the tapeworm matures into its adult form – attaching itself to the intestines to feed.
Adult tapeworms are made of segmented body parts and can grow up to twenty inches long. These segments are called proglottids; a fancy word for packets of tapeworm eggs that are ensheathed by a thin cellular membrane and released into the environment.
After the adult worm begins feeding in the cat’s intestines, some of these “packets” will break away from the adult worm; eventually traveling through the intestines until the animal makes a bowel movement.
Once the tapeworm is in its natural environment (an organism’s intestines), this “packet” erodes and the eggs are now exposed. Fleas will then feed on the newly exposed eggs and the cycle repeats itself.
Once a cat swallows an infected flea, you won’t see the egg packet segments right away. From the time a cat swallows an infected flea, it takes about 2-4 weeks before the adult worm begins releasing the egg packets and end up in the feces.
In parasitology, the amount of time it takes for evidence of a parasitic infection after a host becomes infected to appear is called the prepatent period. Some infections take many months before signs of disease appear.
Causes of Having Tapeworms
The possible causes of having these worms are listed below:
- Contaminated Food or Water
Food and water which are not clean can contain wastes or feces from humans or animals with tapeworms.
Tapeworm eggs can be passed from one animal/person to another by their feces. These feces can pass the eggs when they get in contact with food or water or even their containers.
The animal that ingests the contaminated food or water can have tapeworms too. Once these get into your cat’s intestines, it will grow into a larva.
- Larvae Cysts in Meats
Once the egg turns into a larva, it will rapidly move out of the intestine forming cysts in the body tissues of the host.
If the cat eats uncooked or not well-cooked meat of that infected animal, the cat also ingests the larvae which will develop into an adult tapeworm when it reaches the intestine. More reasons to cook meat for your own consumption and for your cats as well!
- Fleas and Rodents
Fleas and rodents are the most common host for tapeworms. There is a huge chance that cats might ingest fleas while grooming themselves. Dipylidium caninum makes use of fleas as its intermediate hosts until it gets consumed by cats.
Felines are also well-known for eating rodents like mice and rats. Some rodents can be filled with cysts containing eggs of tapeworms and can wreak havoc when consumed by cats.
Other Factors That Increase The Risks of Having Tapeworms
- Lack of proper hygiene
- Going to tapeworm-endemic areas
Once tapeworms enters a cat’s body, some of it just passes through the stool and gets out of the cat’s body. But some attach themselves to the walls of cat’s intestine using their muscular structure called Rostellum, thus causing inflammation.
How to Tell If Your Cat Has Tapeworms
Tapeworms in cats can be unnoticeable at all. As an owner, you have to be really observant. Though, the signals get more visible when the number of tapeworms in your cat increases exponentially.
Once you notice signs, go to a veterinary clinic so they can officially diagnose the disease. The common signs are the following:
- Weight Loss and Increased Appetite
You may notice weight loss despite your cat having a good appetite. Tapeworms can really affect your cat’s health as they steal the nutrients of your pet; causing it to lose weight.
According to some studies, weight loss in infected animals or people can be because their bodies are fighting off against parasites. Occasionally tapeworm infections can also cause diarrhea.
Depending on your cat’s age, health status, and severity of the worm burden (the actual number of adult worms in a host), some cats may be more affected by an infection than others. These cats can show signs ranging from an unkempt hair coat, to behavioral changes such as lethargy or listlessness, and can lose interest in their toys or cuddling with their owner.
- Frequent Vomiting
Vomiting in cats can be normal due to quick consumption of food but can also be because your cat’s stomach is irritated due to a parasite. Sometimes, an infected cat might even vomit live tapeworm or grain-like eggs, which is better than having those worms stuck in its intestine.
Adult tapeworms can very rarely detach themselves from the intestinal wall of the cat and migrate up to the stomach. This can result in a cat vomiting an adult worm, so you might discover a flattened, spaghetti-shaped noodle entangled in a hairball!
They are ugly little things, but ultimately harmless. Be safe while you put the specimen found in a plastic bag to take to your vet for analysis (if you’re not too grossed out), or simply throw it away.
Tapeworms aren’t the only parasites that can exit a cat’s body via vomiting, but tapeworms are the only parasite that pass visible egg packets in the feces.
- Bloating – Bloating is often normal for cats because of overeating but it is also a common sign of parasite infestation in them. A cat with a large number of tapeworms is most likely to develop a potbelly; causing its tummy to look swollen.
- Diarrhea – Parasites from contaminated food or from the rodents that a cat eats usually cause diarrhea. Dehydration can happen when there is diarrhea because of the increased secretion of fluid in the intestine.
- Tapeworm Eggs In Stool – The only way you’ll know for certain if your cat has tapeworms is spotting tiny egg packets in the litter box or skin and fur near your cat’s rear. The packets will look like tiny, pale white grains of rice that may appear to squirm or move around.
You may also notice your cat dragging its posterior along the floor. The egg packets are somewhat irritating and can be itchy. If you see this behavior, it would not hurt to inspect your cat’s rear end and litter box to look for the tapeworms.
Cats showing some of the signs listed above from a tapeworm infection are rare. Most infected cats are asymptomatic – you don’t see any outward signs of disease caused by the worms. Regardless, it’s always a good idea to treat the disease for two reasons:
- Treatment will eliminate the chance of your cat developing more serious complications stemming from chronic or severe infections.
- Treatment will eliminate the possibility of humans getting the disease.
A physical examination have to be done by a veterinarian. A stool sample will be taken from your cat and several tests will be performed to determine if there is a presence of a tapeworm. If the result is positive, the veterinarian will prescribe a dewormer for your pet.
Tapeworm Treatment: Eliminating the Adult Tapeworm
Treatment for infected cats is both straightforward and effective. The drugs that are available for treatment work well and have a high margin of safety for cats.
The most common drug for tapeworm infections is called Praziquantel and most vets will give two doses of the drug to ensure the infection is taken care of.
Other common anti-worm medications are the following:
- Epsiprantel – is a drug used to expel parasitic worms in a host.
- Fenbendazole – is an anthelmintic medicine prescribed by veterinarians to treat parasites in animals.
These medications poison the tapeworm but can be toxic to your pet too. So you must follow the dosage prescribed by the veterinarian. Dosage mostly depends on your cat’s weight.
If you don’t give a treatment to an infected cat, it might end up having more complication like an intestinal blockage.
Your vet will likely give your cat its first dose of medication (usually a tablet) and have you give the second dose yourself the next day at home. Make sure you’re comfortable with giving a pill to your cat. Have your vet show you the proper technique so you can confidently do by yourself later.
Treatment is easy and with so few side effects, as mentioned, that most vets will recommend a routine deworming schedule and send you home with the appropriate drugs every time your cat gets their wellness exam. This is especially true for outdoor cats as you never know what they get into in a day to day basis.
This is a great habit because you may not see the signs of a parasitic infection. This way, you can nip it in the bud before any potential disease progresses.
And Making Sure they Never Return
Equally important as the first treatment is having a good prevention system in place. This involves getting rid of the source of the infection which, in the case of D caninum, is the flea.
Flea control involves killing active adult fleas that live on the animal. It also means killing fleas, larvae, and eggs that are in your home or yard.
Flea control isn’t the most interesting topic in the world. But due to its close association with tapeworms, it’s important to know what you’re in for if your cat becomes infected with the little bloodsuckers.
Hit the Road Jack: Kill The Adult Fleas Living on Your Cat
This part is pretty easy. While other flea shampoos, ointments, and sprays are available, most veterinarians will give an oral medication (called Capstar) to kill adult fleas.
It starts working in an hour. The pill is given once a day for about a week.
Capstar is safe for both dogs and cats over four weeks old and weighing at least two pounds. Once the adult fleas are killed, you’ll want to discuss options with your veterinarian to prevent the fleas from ever calling your cat’s skin home a second time.
… and Don’t Cha Come Back: Feline Flea Preventatives
There are plenty of options available for flea preventatives. They come in either a tablet form, topical formulations or special collars.
These drugs are often combined with a tick preventative as well for added convenience. While some are formulated for both dogs and cats, there are some preventative medications that are extremely toxic to cats and should only be used on dogs.
Flea and tick preventatives that contain Permethrin or Phenothrin are very toxic to cats.
Do not assume any drugs meant for dogs are suitable for cats. If your dog is taking a medicine like this, make sure to isolate the dog from your cat.
You Kicked Them Off Your Cat, Now Kick Them Out Your Home
Now it’s time to take care of the fleas in and around your home. It is critical to disinfect your home from fleas to prevent tapeworm reinfection.
Flea larvae and eggs are incredibly hardy. After an infection, your home may require steam cleaning the carpet, frequent vacuuming, and using flea control products for your home.
Your vet will give you a list of products and tips to get you started. Particularly heavy infestations may require an in home consultation with an exterminator.
Usually a deep cleaning of your home and a monthly flea prevention treatment are enough to get rid of fleas.
Wrapping It Up and Things to Consider
Once a D caninum tapeworm infection is identified and treated, cats showing signs of malaise will bounce back pretty quickly. If your cat was not affected to begin with, then, the worst that had happened was that your cat became annoyed taking pills.
Remember, killing the worms in current infections is as important as killing the fleas to prevent future infections. If nothing is done to control the fleas following treatment for tapeworms, they will almost assuredly become reinfected.
It doesn’t hurt to treat tapeworms prophylactically. Tapeworms are common, the drugs are safe, and treatment isn’t very costly.
If you do see tapeworm eggs, always check for fleas!
Along those lines, treat all the animals in your house well. Once the fleas get in your house, all other animals are at risk.
Though very rare, it is possible for humans to get infected by these tapeworms. Mostly it’s small children that are at risk.
Kids don’t have the best hygiene practices and they are constantly putting stuff in their mouth. Clean up cat poop quickly and always wash your hands.
Other Types of Tapeworms
D caninum infections are the most common type of tapeworm infection in cats. However, there are other species of tapeworms that cats can contract. These include a couple different species of tapeworms from the genus Echinococcus and Taenia.
While infections from these tapeworms are rare and don’t cause much illness, it is important to be aware that this disease is zoonotic. This means that the disease that can be passed from animals to humans. Human infection by these tapeworms, especially Echinococcus, can make people incredibly sick.
These tapeworms, unlike the common tapeworm, aren’t spread by fleas. Their life cycle involves wild canids like wolves, foxes, coyotes, rodents, and others. As such, outdoor cats are the most at risk of acquiring the worm if they eat a rodent infected by Echinococcus.
Like D caninum, humans have to ingest the eggs of the worm to become ill. Again, children are the ones most at risk and prompt disposal of cat poop and good hygiene make this a rare occurrence.
Diagnosing the disease caused by Echinococcus and Taenia worms is a little more difficult. These worms don’t release as many egg packets and they are generally harder to see. However, a fecal evaluation at your vet clinic usually catches the eggs by using a microscope.
Treatment for all of the tapeworms discussed involves the same drug (Praziquantel).