What are Tapeworms?
There are various types of tapeworms that can infect cats. The most common is called Dipylidium caninum and is associated with fleas. The second most commonly seen tapeworm is called Taenia taeniaeformis and is linked to small mammals, birds and reptiles. Tapeworms can live up to two years if untreated, but often do not cause great harm to their host. These worms can grow up to 20 inches long, however, they are usually smaller. Tapeworm infestations are fairly common in cats, and veterinary treatment is very effective at eradicating them.
Tapeworms are a type of intestinal parasite called a cestode. They take the shape of long, flat worms that resemble off-white ribbons. To infect a cat, they must be ingested. Tapeworms are unable to digest food, so to gain nutrients they attach themselves to the intestinal walls of other animals and absorb digested food through holes in their skin. The worms are made up of segments called proglottids that can break off and release eggs. These segments exit a cat with its feces and may be visible as small, rice-like worms.
Symptoms of Tapeworms in Cats
More often than not, an infected cat will not exhibit any notable symptoms other than the visible worm segments in its bowel movements. In extreme cases of infestation involving multiple worms, other symptoms may be seen. These include:
- Weight loss
- Increased appetite
- Dull coat
- Dragging, licking or biting at anus due to itchiness
- White proglottids in stool
- Worm or worms in vomit (rare)
Causes of Tapeworms in Cats
Tapeworms generally need to be ingested by at least two different insects or animals to complete their life cycle. The first is referred to as an intermediate host, and is the primary source of infection to other animals. Different types of tapeworms have different intermediate hosts.
These worms use fleas to progress to their next stage of life. An infected flea may bite a cat to feed, leaving tapeworm eggs in the bite wound. Once a cat licks or bites at the wound due to itch or as a part of general grooming, the tapeworm eggs may be ingested. As the eggs reach the intestines they hatch and attach to the walls using hook-shaped appendages.
The intermediate hosts of these tapeworms can be many small animals including mice, birds and rodents. As these are common prey of outdoor house cats, tapeworms may easily be spread to cats from these animals. The tapeworms create egg filled cysts on the intermediate host’s liver, which, once ingested, hatch inside the cat.
Diagnosis of Tapeworms in Cats
Often, tapeworms are found by the owner of the cat while cleaning out the litter box. Once a cat has been brought in to a veterinary clinic, the vet will complete a physical examination including a close look at the cat’s anus, as proglottids are sometimes seen near the opening. If a cat is diagnosed with fleas, it is wise to assume that Dipylidium caninum tapeworms are also present.
Various fecal examinations will be needed to confirm the type of worms that have infested the cat. Examination of the eggs alone is often not accurate, as many worm eggs resemble each other. Approximately one teaspoon of fresh fecal material may need to be collected from your cat to perform a fecal flotation test. The excrement is then mixed with a substance that is heavier than the worms. After 20 minutes, all worm eggs will float to the surface of the mixture and can then be collected for microscopic analysis and identification.
Treatment of Tapeworms in Cats
Treatment to rid your cat of tapeworms is readily available and very effective. Always consult your veterinarian before choosing a treatment, and seek prescription medications over pet store options.
Many medications have been manufactured for the purpose of ridding cats of tapeworms. These treatments come in the form of injections, tablets and skin drops. Certain medications may have side effects of vomiting and diarrhea. Commonly prescribed deworming medications include anthelmintic, praziquantel, febantel and fenbendazole.
If your cat has been confirmed as carrying Dipylidium caninum tapeworms, it may be necessary to also start a regular flea medication to eliminate the possibility of reinfection. Flea medications are often administered on a once a month basis.
Recovery of Tapeworms in Cats
Eradication of tapeworms with deworming medication is very successful. Many owners choose to deworm their cat on a regular basis as a precautionary action. It may be necessary to keep your cat indoors to prevent it from hunting small animals that carry tapeworms. While cat to human transmission of tapeworms is rare, it can happen, especially with children. Teach any children in the home proper hygiene habits when handling the cat.
If the cat is recovering from a flea infestation also, extra precautions may be necessary. Wash all of the cat’s toys and bedding in hot water. Clean the litter box daily and safely dispose of all feces. Disinfect the litter box on a regular basis. In extreme cases, the home or yard may need to be treated for fleas to prevent reinfection. With proper care, tapeworms can be permanently removed from your cat.