Tapeworms in Cats

Cat sitting looking at camera on a white background
Cats are prone to getting tapeworms from fleas.

Getty Images/Steven Heap/EyeEm

Cats can get a number of different kinds of parasites both internally and externally. Tapeworms are one type of internal parasite that cats can easily contract as well as pass on to other animals and people. This infection, like other zoonotic diseases, should be taken seriously and pet owners should know what to watch for in order to best protect their cat.

What are Tapeworms?

A tapeworm is a type of intestinal parasite that attaches to the small intestines of cats as well as other animals and humans. Tapeworms are segmented, white, flat worms that feed off the nutrients of the food a cat eats and therefore doesn't allow the cat to absorb everything it needs.

Signs of Tapeworms in Cats

Tapeworms, like other intestinal parasites, may be seen in a cat's feces but they may also cause other symptoms.

Signs of Tapeworms

  • Rice-like worm segments near the anus
  • Cat is scooting its hind end
  • Cat is licking its hind end
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Worms in the vomit
  • Worms in the stool
3D rendering of a tapeworm on white background
Tapeworms are segmented, flat worms. Getty Images/3drenderings

When whole, a tapeworm in a cat can grow to be eight inches long but seeing small rice-sized segments, called proglottids, of the parasite around the anal opening is the most common indicator of a tapeworm infestation. These little segments may be stuck in your cat's fur or even crawling around on your cat's hind end. They might also be crawling around on your cat's feces or on the ground where your cat was recently sleeping. Sometimes these worm segments cause irritation to a cat's hind end so your cat may also scoot or lick it's rear to itch it.

If an infestation of tapeworms can also cause vomiting and diarrhea in a cat. Since these worms live in the digestive tract, they may come also exit the body in the vomit or diarrhea. Liquids like these are more likely to contain larger worm segments.

Weight loss is another potential sign that your cat has tapeworms. Since tapeworms feed off what a cat consumes, over time a cat will start losing weight despite the fact that they are eating just as much, if not more, than they used to eat. Tapeworms are not a safe way for a cat, or any other species, to lose weight since they will also cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Causes of Tapeworms in Cats

There is only one way a cat can get the most common species of tapeworms but less common species can be transmitted in other ways.

  • Fleas - Even if you have never seen a flea on your cat, if your cat has the most common species of tapeworms, Dipylidium caninum, then it has eaten a flea at some point. All it takes is one flea to be an intermediate host for your cat to develop a tapeworm infestation. Cats are very fastidious cleaners so it's not uncommon that you don't even notice if your cat has external parasites.
  • Eating rodents, birds, or rabbits - Less common than Dipylidium, the Taenia and Echinococcus species of tapeworms can be transmitted when your cat consumes an infected rodent, bird, or rabbit.

Treatment of Tapeworms in Cats

Cats diagnosed with tapeworms will need specific medications to kill the parasites. These medications may be administered injectably, topically, or orally. Your veterinarian will recommend the drug best suited for your specific cat.

How to Prevent Tapeworms in Cats

The best way to keep your cat from getting tapeworms is to prevent your cat from getting fleas. Regular flea preventatives are recommended to be used year round, even if your cat never leaves the house. Insects, including fleas, can get into your home and the pupal stage of the flea can live in the environment for up to two years before it hatches into a larva and grows into an adult flea. This means that fleas could be hiding in your home just waiting for your cats to skip their flea preventatives.

Diagnosing Tapeworms in Cats

Seeing the tapeworm or its proglottids is usually a good enough way to diagnose a cat with tapeworms but your veterinarian may also confirm it with the use of a microscope. When crushed, the proglottids will express microscopic egg packets that will definitively identify tapeworm.

How Do Humans Get Tapeworms?

Since tapeworms are zoonotic, humans can get them but it does require ingestion of a flea or consumption of the eggs from the feces. This is pretty rare but not entirely impossible if good hygiene is not practiced.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.