Tapeworms in Cats: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

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Tapeworms are common parasites, and they are among the few worms that you can often see with the naked eye. Cats (as well as many other mammals) can have tapeworm infections, and they typically settle in the small intestine.

Treatment to destroy tapeworms is a critical step in preventing transmission to humans (typically children), and for preventing damage to your cat's body.

An infection with the most common species of tapeworms in cats is not transmissible to humans, and when treated promptly, the prognosis is good.

Here’s some info on tapeworms and what you can do to keep them away from your cat.

How Can You Tell if Your Cat Has Tapeworms?

As a tapeworm grows, pieces of its body break into segments and pass into your cat’s intestines. You may see dried, white or cream-colored segments of the tapeworm in your cat's feces, or you may find them stuck to the fur under your cat’s tail.

Some tapeworm species will break into segments that are too small to see, while the segments of other tapeworm species will resemble sesame or cucumber seeds in size and appearance.

If a tapeworm has traveled into a cat’s stomach, and the cat vomits up the worm, it may come up as a large and moving segment.

Cats may bite or lick their anus, or drag their hindquarters across the floor. Keep in mind that a tapeworm infection is often asymptomatic and, contrary to popular belief, rarely a cause of weight loss in cats. 

If you notice tapeworms, take your cat to the vet for an evaluation. A fecal sample can be used to diagnose intestinal parasites like tapeworms. It’s always helpful to save any worms that you find and bring them to your veterinarian for diagnosis. They can be transported in a sealed plastic bag or jar.

How Do Cats Get Tapeworms?

The tapeworm requires an intermediate host before developing into an adult. So, for a cat to get tapeworms, they need to ingest the intermediate host. For example, tapeworm eggs are frequently ingested through adult fleas.

The fleas actually ingest the tapeworm eggs before jumping on a cat, and then the cat eats the flea and becomes infected. The tapeworm eggs then hatch once they have been digested in the cat’s intestines. 

Other hosts that a cat is likely to ingest include rabbits, birds, and rodents. Scavenging may also lead to an infestation of tapeworms.

How to Treat Tapeworms in Cats

Treatment for adult tapeworms is given on an outpatient basis in the form of an injection or oral medication. Deworming medications are effective at removing tapeworms and very safe for your cat.

After treatment, the tapeworms will normally dissolve in the cat’s intestines. You don’t usually see an expulsion of the tapeworms into the feces unless it is an unusually high worm load.  

You need to administer the full course of the prescribed medication to ensure that the tapeworms are removed from your cat's body. 

How to Prevent Tapeworms (and the Fleas That Cause Them)

Keeping your cat free of flea infestations with flea and tick medication is the best protection against tapeworms. However, if infestation does occur, the environment must be treated along with the cat to prevent recurring infestations.

Since cats are fastidious groomers, you may not see the fleas that they are ingesting or know that they are contracting tapeworms until there is an infestation. 

Ask your veterinarian which flea and tick prevention products are safe for your cat. Keeping your cat indoors and away from dead animals and garbage may also help prevent them from ingesting tapeworms.

Featured Image: iStock.com/DebraLee Wiseberg

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