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?
Like the hookworm and roundworm, 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.
Tapeworms, like other intestinal parasites, may be seen in a cat's feces but they may also cause other symptoms.
When whole, a tapeworm in a cat can grow to be 8 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 its rear to itch it.
An infestation of tapeworms can also cause vomiting and diarrhea in a cat. Since these worms live in the digestive tract, they may 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 it is eating just as much as it used to eat, if not more. Tapeworms are not a safe way for a cat, or any other species, to lose weight since these parasites will also cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
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 tapeworm can be transmitted when your cat consumes an infected rodent, bird, or rabbit.
Cats diagnosed with tapeworms will need specific medications to kill the parasites. These medications may be administered by injection, topically, or orally. Your veterinarian will recommend the drug best suited for your specific cat.
The best way to keep your cat from getting tapeworms is to prevent 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.
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.
Gastrointestinal Parasites of Cats. Cornell Feline Health Center