Tapeworms in Cats
- Tapeworms are an intestinal parasite found in cats.
- Cats get tapeworms most often by eating an infected flea while grooming.
- Many cats do not show signs of a tapeworm infection.
- Pet parents may notice tapeworm proglottids in fur or under a cat's tail.
- Tapeworms are easy to treat with the right medication. Monthly flea medication is needed for prevention.
Cats are perfectionists when it comes to their grooming habits. So much so, you may never even notice if a few fleas jump on their backs and bite. When cats feel a flea bite, they immediately turn and chew or scratch it off.
This is effective at killing the flea, but if the cat chews off and then accidentally swallows the flea, she is then at risk of developing a tapeworm.
Let’s review the signs and symptoms of tapeworms in cats and what you need to know to keep your feline happy and healthy.
What are Cat Tapeworms?
Tapeworms are an intestinal parasite found in cats. Inside the body they look like long, ribbon-like worms. However, pet parents usually see evidence of tapeworms as egg packets that look like grains of rice or sesame seeds around a cat’s anus or in feces.
Most adult cats with tapeworms will show no signs of the parasite, making tapeworms difficult to diagnose.
Types of Cat Tapeworms
There are several types of tapeworms in cats that are divided into the following categories.
Diplydium caninum – the most common tapeworm in cats, exclusively spread by fleas.
Taenia species – acquired by ingesting dead animals or undercooked (or raw) meat. There are many different species.
Echinococcus tapeworms are very rare in cats but can cause severe disease.
Symptoms of Tapeworms in Cats
Most healthy adult cats show few if any symptoms of a tapeworm infection. Tapeworms are usually diagnosed when pet parents or the veterinarian sees tapeworm egg packets (called proglottids) around the anus, in hair, or on a fecal sample.
Proglottids are a type of sac containing many eggs. Fresh Diplydium tapeworm proglottids look like small grains of rice that can move. When they become dry, they may look like sesame seeds in size, shape, and color.
Shape varies across types of tapeworms, for example Taenia proglottids are more square in appearance. Luckily, it is not necessary for pet parents to distinguish between the types of tapeworms when seeking treatment as all types of tapeworms respond to the same treatment.
Kittens with tapeworms may develop an intestinal obstruction if the worms fill up the volume of their intestines. This can be fatal.
For adult and otherwise healthy cats, symptoms of tapeworms are rare and mild but may include the following:
- Diarrhea – Loose, watery, or mucousy stool can indicate intestinal parasites including tapeworms. Tapeworms are less likely than other parasites—such as hookworms or whipworms—to cause bloody stool.
- Inappetance – Intestinal discomfort (a stomach ache) may cause your cat to lose his appetite
- Weight Loss – A severe tapeworm infection may lead to weight loss as the worms steal the food your cat is digesting or your cat loses his appetite.
- Vomiting – Stomach aches or an intestinal blockage due to worms can lead to vomiting. It is very unlikely for the vomit to contain worms.
How Do Cats Get Tapeworms?
Cats get Diplydium tapeworms by ingesting fleas who are themselves infected. Cats may do this when grooming themselves or when chewing at a flea that bites. The more fleas a cat has, the more likely she is to also have tapeworms.
Flea larvae become infected when they ingest a tapeworm egg that is shed into the environment. By the time that larvae develops into an adult flea, the tapeworm inside its body is ready to infect a mammal such as a cat (or dog, or human).
The only way to get this type of tapeworm is to ingest a flea. Since it is very unlikely that a human will eat a flea, the risk to humans is very low. A human cannot get tapeworms directly from a cat, and a cat cannot get tapeworms directly from another cat (or dog).
However, if one pet in the house has fleas, they are likely to all have fleas and are therefore at risk of also contracting tapeworms.
Diagnosing a Cat with Tapeworms
Frequently, when cats are diagnosed as having tapeworms it is because a pet parent notices the proglottids around their cat’s anus or in their fur. If brought to see a veterinarian, this is also the way the vet or her staff is most likely to diagnose tapeworms.
Veterinarians will perform a fecal flotation test. If tapeworms are present, the eggs (released from a ruptured proglottid) will float in the testing solution. However, fecal flotation tests frequently have false negatives.
Pet parents should definitely let their vets know if they notice signs of tapeworm at home, because this is often the only way vets diagnose them.
How to Treat Tapeworms in Cats
Luckily, tapeworms are easy to treat with the right medication. However, giving your cat medicine is only part of the way to true treatment.
A cat with tapeworms should also be treated for fleas, have their home thoroughly cleaned, and started on effective flea prevention.
Tapeworm Medication for Cats
Praziquantel is the name of the medicine used to treat tapeworms in cats. It is available from your veterinarian as a prescription injection, topical, or pill. Make sure to follow all veterinarian instructions, read the directions, and give the appropriate dose for your cat’s weight.
Your veterinarian may recommend treating all pets in the house. Treatment for tapeworms may need to be repeated 2-4 weeks after the initial treatment.
Kittens, pregnant or nursing cats, those with diseases, or cats who are sick should be seen and treated by a veterinarian as their infection may be more severe or a different medicine may be required.
Cost to Treat Tapeworms in Cats
Depending on the size of your cat, the cost of treating tapeworms may be anywhere from $20-$50 plus any costs associated with your veterinary visit such as the exam and fecal analysis ($50-$150).
Flea treatment and prevention is an important part of treating tapeworms. The safest and most effective forms of flea treatment and prevention for cats are only available with a veterinary prescription. This is because cats are sensitive to many of the ingredients used to treat fleas in dogs and over-the-counter products often do not indicate whether a product is safe for cats and may be misleading.
Options for effective flea prevention include flea collars, topical treatments, and chewable medications that range in price from $10 to $40 per month.
Fleas in the Home: Treating the Source of Tapeworms
Until a cat’s home environment is cleaned of flea eggs and larva, she can continue to be infected by ingesting fleas.
Treating the environment includes repeated vacuuming of all surfaces, washing bedding, and cleaning all upholstery. Flea eggs and larvae can survive in even the smallest nooks and crannies including hardwood floors and tile but especially carpet, furniture, and bedding. Use a washing machine and dryer to wash bedding, cat toys, clothing, and pet bedding.
You may read about apple cider vinegar for ridding the environment of fleas. The only way vinegar is effective is by drowning the fleas—which is not realistic for your home. Instead, you can try treating the environment with natural products, such as diatomaceous earth and finely ground boric acid, which are non-toxic and effective against all flea life stages. (Products like diatomaceous earth are for treating the environment ONLY.) However, severe infestations may require fumigation or stronger forms of treatment.
Prevention of Tapeworms in Cats
The only effective way to prevent tapeworms in cats is to prevent fleas. Ask your veterinarian about the best flea prevention method for your cat and her lifestyle.
If your cat becomes infected with a Taenia species of tapeworm, prevention may require an indoor-only lifestyle so that she cannot catch and kill animals or eat from carcasses.