Tapeworms are a common parasite in cats that live in the intestines. They can be excreted in the feces and passed along to other animals. Some owners may notice tapeworm symptoms in their cat such as vomiting, diarrhea, a bloated belly, changes in appetite, or segments of the worms in the stool, but many cats can have tapeworms and not show any signs. For this reason, regular prevention and screening is important to keep your cat free from tapeworms and other intestinal parasites.
What Are Tapeworms in Cats?
Tapeworms are a kind of intestinal parasite or "worm" that live in various host animals throughout their lifecycle. There are many species of tapeworms, with the most common ones found in cats being Dipylidium caninum and certain species of Taenia. These worms are flat, segmented parasites that latch onto the wall of the intestines and absorb nutrients directly from the intestine of the host animal. The last segments of these worms contain fertilized eggs and these segments, called proglottids, drop off and pass through the digestive tract and are excreted in the feces. The eggs in these segments can then infect other host animals if ingested.
Symptoms of Tapeworms in Cats
In many cases, no symptoms of the tapeworm infection are present, and luckily for most kitties, these infections usually do not cause serious problems. The most commonly observed signs include:
Visible Tapeworm Segments
These segments, also called proglottids, are excreted by the host animal. They are often described as looking like grains of rice due to their small, white tubular appearance. They can be seen on the cat’s anus, under the tail area, as well as in the feces. Before they dry out, freshly released proglottids may move around on the feces or in your cat's hair. These segments contain eggs ready to hatch and enter the next host animal.
Itching Around the Anus
This occurs when the proglottids, or tapeworm segments, are released, sometimes causing itchiness or irritation around the anus. Cats may react to this by licking or chewing under their tail or around their anus as well as by scooting their hind end on the floor.
While vomiting can occur for many reasons, it can occasionally happen due to a tapeworm infection or from other intestinal parasites. Sometimes, a worm may even be visible in the vomit. Because vomiting for any reason is abnormal, it is always a good idea to have your cat examined by its veterinarian if it vomits repeatedly.
Diarrhea is usually described as stool that is more watery than usual in consistency and occurs with increased frequency compared to normal defection. When cats have diarrhea, that urgency may mean they don’t always make it to the litter box, so accidents are also more common. If diarrhea is caused by intestinal parasites, such as tapeworms, occasionally a worm may be visible in the diarrhea and those rice-like proglottids may be seen as well. Any cases of diarrhea should be checked out by a veterinarian to avoid dehydration, weight loss, and additional health problems.
A bloated belly can make a cat look like it has a "pot bellied" appearance or a swollen abdomen, even if the rest of the cat’s body looks thin. In the case of intestinal parasites, this occurs because of accumulation of gas in the stomach and intestines caused by the worms irritating the GI tract. There are many other reasons a cat may appear to have a bloated belly. In all cases, it is best to have your cat checked out by a veterinarian.
This is a very rare complication from intestinal parasites and only occurs in cases when there are many large worms in the intestine. In those unusual cases, the clump of worms can be large enough to actually block the intestine and prevent the normal passage of food. Anything that causes an intestinal blockage causes a cat to feel very sick. They will usually experience intense vomiting, abdominal pain, lethargy, and won’t want to eat. Cats with these signs should be seen by its veterinarian right away.
Causes of Tapeworms in Cats
Tapeworms must be ingested in their immature form to infect a new host animal. For the two most common species of tapeworms in cats, infection occurs in two different ways.
In the Dipylidium species, the immature form of the tapeworm lives in fleas. When a cat is infested with fleas, it often ingests some of them while chewing its fur to stop the itch of biting fleas. In this sneaky way, the tapeworms hitch a ride on the fleas and end up being delivered to their next host.
In the Taenia species, the immature form of the tapeworm lives in the abdomen of prey animals such as rabbits, rodents, and deer. When a cat eats a rodent, such as a mouse, the tapeworms once again are along for the ride and set up home inside their new host.
Diagnosing Tapeworms in Cats
If you are concerned that your cat may have tapeworms or any other intestinal parasite, the best way to make a diagnosis is to have a stool sample tested by your veterinarian. Using a specialized technique, many parasite eggs can be isolated from a stool sample and identified to allow for proper treatment.
In cases when a stool sample is not available and/or your veterinarian has strong evidence to suggest a tapeworm infection, such as the presence of fleas, a recent history of ingesting a rodent, and/or visible rice-like proglottid segments around the anus, your veterinarian may recommend treatment anyway.
A deworming medication called praziquantel will most likely be prescribed to get rid of your cat’s tapeworm infection. This is usually an oral medication; however, there are some topical and injectable forms of the medication available. In many cases, your vet will recommend repeating the treatment two to four weeks after the first dose to ensure the parasites are completely cleared from the body.
It is also important to treat your cat (and your home) for fleas at the same time because many tapeworm infections come from fleas, and this will prevent reinfection. If there are other pets in the household, they should also be treated, so make sure to inform your vet of any other furry roommates who may need care. Cats that spend time outdoors may become reinfected if they are catching and eating wildlife.
Is It Contagious to Humans?
Tapeworm infections can occur in humans, and most cases occur in children. Direct infection from a pet to a human with Dipylidium or Taenia has not been documented. In most cases of human infection, the human ingests a flea directly and this leads to an infection. A different type of tapeworm, Echinococcus, is rarely found in cats, but can be directly transmitted to humans and causes severe illness.
Prognosis for Cats with Tapeworms
The prognosis for tapeworm infections is excellent. Most cats will be cured following the proper course of treatment as long as the source is also removed, whether that is access to fleas and/or rodents.
How to Prevent Tapeworms in Cats
Because we know most cases of tapeworms come from fleas and rodents, the best prevention is to keep them away from your cat. This means using monthly flea prevention on your cat as well as any other pets in the home. It also means preventing your cat from hunting prey, such as rodents as much as possible. While this is easier for indoor cats, the occasional rodent can still sneak inside and may become an unexpected treat for your kitty. For this reason, routine screening is another important tool in the prevention of tapeworm infections.
Many veterinarians recommend submitting a stool sample for analysis at least once a year, even for seemingly healthy indoor pets. This can help identify intestinal parasites even when there are no obvious signs of illness in your cat. For cats at higher risk of infection, such as cats that go outside and/or frequently catch rodents, your vet may recommend routine deworming to ensure any intestinal parasites are treated before they become a problem.
When you know what to look for and how these infections can happen, you can be your cat’s best advocate for treating and preventing tapeworm infections.