Tapeworm Infection in Cats
Tapeworm infection is an invasion and multiplication of a parasite, most commonly Dipylidium caninum or a Taenia species, that occurs in the small intestinal tract. There are many types of tapeworms from the cestode family of intestinal worms. Besides tapeworms, there are many other types of gastrointestinal parasites in cats.
Cats with tapeworms generally have mild symptoms, and many owners only become aware of the problem by noticing worm segments.
Causes of Tapeworms in Cats
Tapeworms require the ingestion of an intermediate host for infection. This means a cat cannot get tapeworms from eating a tapeworm or tapeworm egg. The two most common ways cats get tapeworms is from eating a flea or eating prey that contains the infected larvae. Common prey includes rodents (mice), squirrels, and/or rabbits. Lice can also act as an intermediate host for tapeworms in cats, but are relatively uncommon.
Fleas are typically infected with tapeworm larvae. By far, flea ingestion is the most common way a cat gets a tapeworm infection. When a cat has fleas, they get flea bites, which triggers them to lick the location of the bite and inadvertently ingest the flea.
As the flea is digested, the tapeworm larvae remain in the cat’s intestine and develops into an adult tapeworm. It then attaches itself to the lining (wall) of the intestine with its hook-like mouthparts. The adult mature worm produces segments called proglottids, which are passed in the feces. The proglottids are what pet owners commonly see in the feces or near the rectal area of their cats. Adult tapeworms can grow to be 8 to 20 inches in length.
Symptoms of Tapeworm Infection
- Most infected cats are unaffected and asymptomatic.
- Anal irritation may occur, as evidenced by licking at anal area. Some cats may scoot (or drag) their bottom across the floor.
- Observation of live worm segments on the surface of a fresh bowel movement (feces) or around the rectum. These commonly appear as thin white or off-white segments that stretch and move.
- On the rare occasion, diarrhea or intestinal obstruction.
- Weight loss can occur with extremely large infestations.
Diagnosis of Tapeworm Infection in Cats
A thorough knowledge of history and clinical signs is always important and, most often, helpful in making the diagnosis. History often includes the observation of fleas and/or a history of hunting and ingesting prey.
If you see segments or worms in your cat’s feces, take the sample with you, so that your veterinarian can visualize the worms or worm segments.
Diagnostic tests conducted for tapeworm infections include:
- Tapeworm segments identified on the feces or around the anal area. Live tapeworm segments are generally white and flat. The dried segments are similar in appearance to pieces of dried white rice.
- Fecal flotation (visually resembling eggs). Because these “eggs” are passed intermittently, tapeworms may not be visualized during routine fecal examination.
- Vomiting of a worm. Occasionally, a cat will vomit a worm that separates from the intestinal wall. A worm can also be passed in the feces.
Treatment of Tapeworm Infection in Cats
Treatment for tapeworm infection should be aimed at both the active tapeworm load and controlling the intermediate host (usually fleas). There are several medications on the market that are very effective. Some flea, tick, and heartworm prevention medications are also capable of treating tapeworm infections, but be sure to verify this with your veterinarian.
Tapeworm medications can be topical, oral, or injectable. Any of the following anthelmintics (dewormers) treat tapeworm infections:
- Fenbendazole (Panacur®)
- Febantel (Vercom®)
- Praziquantel (Droncit®)
- Epsiprantel (Cestex®)
- Emodepside/praziquantel (Profender®)
Home Care and Prevention
Strict flea control is very important to prevent reinfection of Dipylidium, and preventing access to rodents and rabbits will help avoid reinfection with the Taenia species. You can minimize exposure to prey by keeping cats indoors or by adding a quick-release collar with a bell that can warn prey.
Home care includes administering veterinarian-prescribed medication and being aware of reinfection with exposure to intermediate hosts. If your home remains infested with fleas or your cat continues to hunt and ingest prey, reinfection can occur quickly.
Thoroughly treat your home to kill all fleas and flea life stages. Use all products as recommended by your veterinarian and treat all pets in the household.
Prevention of tapeworms involves controlling the intermediate host by treating both the affected animal and the environment.
The prognosis for cats with tapeworms is excellent.
NOTE: You cannot get Dipylidium caninum tapeworms directly from your cat, since a flea is required as intermediate host. Just like your cat, you would need to ingest a flea to become infected.