Tapeworms are internal parasites that cats can easily contract and pass on to other animals and people. Fortunately, tapeworms are highly treatable with medication. Tapeworms may cause uncomfortable symptoms like diarrhea, weight loss, and vomiting, and once diagnosed, should be addressed immediately. If untreated, tapeworm symptoms will continue and the worm can live for years in your cat's body, growing in length. The best preventative measure you can take against tapeworms is to protect your cat from fleas. Like other zoonotic diseases, cat owners should take a tapeworm infection seriously and know what to watch for to protect their cat best.
What Are Tapeworms?
Like a hookworm or roundworm, a tapeworm is an intestinal parasite that attaches to the small intestines of cats, other animals, and humans. Tapeworms are segmented white flatworms that feed off of a cat's food, keeping the cat from absorbing necessary nutrients. A tapeworm uses its hook-like mouth to latch onto the small intestine and can grow up to 8 inches in length. The individual segments in the worm are called proglottids and contain fertilized tapeworm eggs, which will hatch shortly following passage through the anus.
Symptoms of Tapeworms in Cats
Like other intestinal parasites, tapeworms may be seen in a cat's feces and cause gastrointestinal upset. Pay careful attention to your cat's symptoms to help distinguish between types of worms, and take your cat to the vet if you suspect that your cat has a parasite.
The presence of small rice-sized segments around the anal opening is the most common indicator of a tapeworm infestation. These little segments, called proglottids, may be stuck in your cat's fur or crawling around on your cat's hind end.
Scooting and Licking
Sometimes worm segments irritate a cat's hind end, so your cat may also scoot or lick its rear to scratch the itch.
Diarrhea and Vomiting
An infestation of tapeworms can also cause vomiting and diarrhea. Since tapeworms live in the digestive tract, they may also exit the body through vomit or diarrhea.
Worms in Vomit and Stool
Worms might be crawling around on your cat's feces or the ground near where your cat is sleeping. Longer worm segments are more likely to appear in liquid excretions like vomit and diarrhea.
Weight loss is another potential sign that your cat has tapeworms. Since tapeworms feed off what a cat eats, the cat will lose weight over time, even though 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 because the parasite will also cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Causes of Tapeworms
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 your cat with a flea, if it has the most common tapeworm, dipylidium caninum, it has definitively eaten a flea. Cats are meticulous cleaners, so you might not notice if your cat has external parasites. All it takes is one flea to be an intermediate host for your cat to develop a tapeworm infestation.
- 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.
Diagnosing Tapeworms in Cats
Seeing the tapeworm or its proglottids is usually a reliable way to diagnose a cat with tapeworms. Still, your veterinarian may also confirm the parasite by using a microscope. When crushed, the proglottids will expel tiny egg packets that make clear your cat has tapeworms.
Cats diagnosed with tapeworms will need specific medications to kill the parasites. These medications may be administered by injection, topically, or orally and will dissolve the worm in the intestine. Your veterinarian will recommend the drug best suited for your cat.
Prognosis for Cats With Tapeworms
When treated early and correctly, the prognosis for cats with tapeworms is good. With proper care, you can permanently eradicate tapeworms. Extra precautions are necessary if your cat is recovering from fleas and tapeworm at the same time. You will need to thoroughly wash all of your cat's toys and bedding and change your cat's litter daily.
How to Prevent Tapeworms
The best way to keep your cat from getting tapeworms is to prevent fleas. Even if your cat never leaves the house, you should use regular flea preventatives year-round. 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 fleas could be hiding in your home, waiting for your cats to skip their flea preventatives.
Is It Contagious to Humans?
Tapeworms are zoonotic, meaning humans can get them from animals, but contracting tapeworms requires ingestion of a flea or consumption of the eggs from the feces. This is rare but not impossible if good hygiene is not practiced.
What do tapeworms look like?
Tapeworms are long, white, and flat. A fully developed tapeworm can become very long, but it's normal to notice the worm as small rice-sized segments around the anal opening.
How did my cat get tapeworms?
If your cat has the most common strain of tapeworm, dipylidium caninum, it is because they have eaten a flea. Your cat can also get tapeworm from eating small rodents.
Are tapeworms curable?
Tapeworms in cats are curable. With proper treatment, they can be rid entirely of the cat's digestive system. Consult with your vet for the right treatment plan for your cat.
Gastrointestinal Parasites of Cats. Cornell Feline Health Center.