Intestinal parasites like tapeworms are common in cats and can be treated safely with help from a vet. Here’s how to tell if your cat has tapeworms and how to get rid of them quickly and effectively.
Tapeworms are a common intestinal parasite in cats that they get from eating either infected fleas or infected small animals. The worms are divided into segments that break off and look similar to grains of rice moving around in the cat’s poop. Luckily, the worms rarely cause disease in cats, and both treatment and prevention are relatively simple.
“Tapeworms are long, white, flat, segmented parasites with hook-like mouth parts that they use to attach themselves to the intestinal walls of cats,” says Jessica Nichols, DVM, who is the chief veterinary officer of Spay and Neuter Kansas City in Kansas City, Mo. “There are multiple tapeworm species that infect cats (Taenia taeniaeformis infects only cats, and Dipylidium caninum infects both cats and dogs), but it’s not common for veterinarians to distinguish between the two as they tend to treat them both the same way.”
According to Nichols, adult tapeworms will shed segments of their body (called proglottids) into the infected cat’s poop, which are pretty easy to identify with the naked eye. “These proglottids look like grains of rice that move, and they are commonly seen in the poop or around the rear end of infected cats,” she explains. “They eventually break open and release tapeworm eggs into the environment.” Nichols says it’s also possible for the entire tapeworm to break off from the intestinal wall and end up in the cat’s poop.
Cats don’t become infected by directly eating the tapeworm eggs released by proglottids. Instead, they get tapeworms by eating either infected small animals like mice, squirrels and rabbits, or infected fleas, Nichols says. Fleas eat the tapeworm eggs carried by proglottids, and the eggs are able to develop inside the tiny flea. If that infected flea later lands on a cat and is eaten (during grooming or as a result of annoying the cat), the cat can then become infected, too.
Nichols notes that cats with tapeworms cannot infect humans, and vice versa. However, the Companion Animal Parasite Council says that humans can become infected with Dipylidium caninum, though it’s very rare and requires the person to eat an infected flea.
“More often than not, cats with tapeworms won’t have any signs or symptoms,” Nichols explains. “The most common clinical signs seen by pet owners are the presence of tapeworm segments in their cat’s poop or on their cat’s rear end.” She says that in rare cases, tapeworms can cause vomiting, diarrhea, itchiness around the cat’s backside, and blocked intestines. These signs are more likely if the cat is infested with many worms. Nichols adds that adult cats are more commonly affected by tapeworms than kittens.
Nichols says that tapeworms in cats are most often diagnosed by either the owner or the veterinarian seeing the tapeworm segments (which appear in the cat’s poop or around its rear end). You don’t need a microscope to spot them. Unlike with roundworms, yearly fecal float tests that use a microscope to look for parasite eggs in the poop aren’t as useful for detecting tapeworms.
Treatment of tapeworms in cats involves a single dose of a deworming drug by mouth, explains Nichols. However, cats can become reinfected by eating infected rodents or fleas, so they may have to undergo the same treatment again in the future. “Because fleas are a common route of infection, it’s important to treat the fleas as well as the tapeworms,” she adds. “I always recommend flea preventatives for my patients that have tapeworm, and I always consider a tapeworm treatment or screening for my patients that have fleas.”
According to Nichols, the best way to prevent your cat from getting tapeworms is to keep it on a year-round flea preventative. Many heartworm preventative drugs will also protect against tapeworms. Your cat’s veterinarian can help you find the best options for your pet. It’s also a good idea to prevent your cat from hunting mice and other small rodents that could be carrying the parasite.