Tapeworms In Cats
Many cat owners might be unaware that their beloved feline companions are harbouring an unwelcome parasite: Tapeworms. These worms can live quietly within your cat's intestines, yet posing a serious health risk.
Tapeworms can not only cause harm to our cat's, but some of them also pose a significant health risk to humans. While the sight of white, segmented worms in your cat's faeces or under their tail might be alarming, the silent menace often remains unnoticed as many infections remain asymptomatic. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, weight loss isn't always a tell-tale sign of a tapeworm infestation in your cat.
Fortunately, with timely recognition, diagnosis, and treatment, these parasites can be effectively managed. In this article, we will delve deep into the world of tapeworms in cats: from spotting the signs of an infestation, to understanding their life cycle, and finally, to ensuring that your cat remains tapeworm-free.
- Recognising Tapeworm Infections
- What Types Of Tapeworms Affect Cats?
- Symptoms of Tapeworms In Cats
- How Do Cats Get Tapeworms?
- Diagnosis of Tapeworms
- Treatment of Tapeworms
- Prevention of Tapeworms
- Can I Get Tapeworms From My Cat?
Recognising Tapeworm Infections
Chances are, you are already familiar with Tapeworms. These are an intestinal worm that usually appears as a long, flat, white worm. You may have seen them hanging from a cat's bottom before and maybe even thought it was a piece of string! However, many tapeworm infections can be silent. So how do you know if your cat has tapeworms?
First of all, it's important to know how to differentiate a tapeworm from other intestinal worms. Roundworms and hookworms typically have smooth, rounded bodies. They are usually smaller, with Roundworms being up to 15 centimetres and Hookworms or Whipworms being a couple of centimetres long. If worms are passed in faeces, typically the whole worm is passed. Now, let's look at Tapeworms specifically.
What Types of Tapeworms Affect Cats?
Tapeworm is an umbrella term for a few different species of flatworms with segmented bodies. They are typically white, often looking like a tape when they are intact, but can also pass small white segments in the faeces, which may look like grains of rice under the tail or in the faeces. There are 3 different species of tapeworms that can affect cats in Australia.
Flea TapewormDipylidium Canis, the Flea Tapeworm, is the most common tapeworm of cats. This worm is typically identified by white, moving segments (called proglottids), in the faeces or around the bottom that are the size of a rice grain. These mature proglottids are larger than those closest to the head and are typically longer than they are wide.The adult worms can be up to 50 centimetres long.
The Cat Tapeworm
Taenia taeniaeformis is the only species of worm in the Taenia species that can infect cats, so it is commonly known as the Cat Tapeworm. Like the Flea Tapeworm, its smallest segments are near its head and the largest proglottids are shed in faeces or may crawl out of the bottom. The moving white segments have been described as being like 'maggots'. Compared to the Flea Tapeworm though, the segments are wider than they are long. Worms of the Taenia species can be several metres long.
Image Source: Dr Claire Rhodes
Spirometra erinacei is predominantly a tapeworm of cats. This worm has a central reproductive system in each segment, surrounded by flat tissue. This gives the appearance of a zipper running down the worm. It can reach up to 1.5 metres long.
This worm also sheds proglottids in cat faeces. These segments appear 'zipper-like' with a raised central oval and a thin tape appearance on either side. This may be seen in the faeces or under the tail of an infected cat.
Image source: Dr Louisa Hick
Symptoms of Tapeworms in Cats
Tapeworms are often considered a 'smart worm' because they inflict minimal damage on their host and often cats will show no symptoms of infection. The worms do not feed off the host themselves, they feed on the intestinal content of your cat. Some of these worms do not even have suckers or hooks which can damage the intestinal lining. They mainly cause discomfort or reduce nutrient absorption.
Most cases of tapeworm are identified when owners visualise the segments around the cat's bottom or in faeces when cleaning out the litter tray.
However, some animals may show signs of disease, particularly those with high worm burdens, larger species of tapeworms or kittens and senior cats.
Image Credit: Dr Avril Williams
- White segments like rice grains or maggots in the faeces/under the tail
- Scooting or dragging the bottom on the ground
- Biting or chewing at the area around the bottom
- Weight loss
- Vomiting (Sometimes with worms in heavy burdens)
- General malaise
- Ravenous appetite
- Abdominal pain or discomfort
How Do Cats Get Tapeworms?
Life Cycle of Dipylidium Caninum
Tapeworms are quite different from other intestinal worms in their lifecycle. Tapeworms have an intermediate host (called a paratenic host). This means that part of their life cycle exists within another species before infecting your cat. In order for your cat to become infected with tapeworm, they must consume the paratenic host.
A cat infected with adult tapeworms will shed proglottids (segments) in their faeces. These proglottids contain eggs which are released into the faeces when the proglottids break open. The eggs are then ingested by the paratenic host. The paratenic host can vary depending on the type of tapeworm present.
As its name implies, the Flea Tapeworm (Dipylidium caninum) uses fleas as its intermediate host. The flea larvae eat the eggs in the faeces and as the flea matures into an adult, the tapeworm also develops into a larval cyst. Cats become infected by eating fleas contaminated with these cysts, usually during grooming. After ingestion of the flea, the worm larvae is released from the cyst and develops into an adult worm. This complete life cycle takes 2-3 weeks.
The Cat Tapeworm (Taenia taeniaeformis) has a similar life cycle to the Flea Tapeworm, however, the paratenic host is usually rodents and small mammals, such as rabbits, rats and mice. This means outdoor cats or those that hunt these small prey are the most at risk. This tapeworm's life cycle can take several months and adults can survive inside a cat for up to 3 years.
The Zipper Worm (Spirometra erinacei) comparatively to the cycles above has at least two intermediate hosts. The first host is a small water based crustacean called Copepods. These are then ingested by the second intermediate host; frogs, snakes, lizards, chickens, pigs, birds, etcetera. This ingestion often occurs passively while they are drinking the water. Cats can become infected via two methods:
1. They may drink contaminated water, becoming a secondary intermediate host. In this case the larvae develop into a new stage where they are called sparganum and these form cysts in the cat's muscles and tissues.
2. They could consume the second intermediate host and become infected with the adult worms, which reside in the intestinal tract.
The Zipper Worm's full lifecycle takes around 6-10 weeks (48-67 days), and like Taenia tapeworms, its adult form can survive within a cat for several years.
Diagnosis of Tapeworms
It's important that owners are aware of the signs of tapeworms in their cats. This way they can take their cat to the vet if they suspect a tapeworm infection. A diagnosis will then be made by the examining veterinarian.
It's important to not only take your cat to the vet, but also to collect a sample of the faeces (use gloves and wash your hands), as well as any proglottids, or worms you may have seen on your cat or in their faeces. The vet will examine the proglottids microscopically to identify the tapeworm infection present. Your vet may also perform a microscopic faecal examination to determine if there are eggs present in the faeces.
Treatment of Tapeworms
When it comes to Tapeworms, the magic word is 'Praziquantel'. Tapeworms are treated, and prevented, with the active ingredient Praziquantel. However, the dose used in preventatives is not sufficient for treatment. Identification of the type of tapeworm present is important to determine the treatment dose, particularly for Spirometra, which must be treated with 4 times the standard labelled dose. Once your vet has made a diagnosis of a tapeworm infection they will begin treatment with either an oral or injectable formulation.
A treatment course will typically be prescribed to ensure that treatment covers an entire life cycle of the worms, that all worms involved in the infection are eliminated and that re-infection from the environment cannot occur. For severe or persistent infections, your vet may prescribe year long treatment which is necessary to ensure the problem is resolved.
When the treatment is administered, it will dissolve the tapeworms within the digestive tract, this means that owners often won't see their cats passing the worms in their faeces.
Prevention of Tapeworms
Prevention is better than a cure! This is true for tapeworms as much as any worm. Without prevention, your cat could potentially be harbouring a number of large adult tapeworms making them chronically unwell, and contaminating the environment putting your family at risk. There are several steps that can be taken to reduce your cat's risk of getting tapeworms:â¢Clean up faeces regularly and bury it or dispose of it in a bag in the trash
â¢Prevent cats from hunting and eating rodents
â¢Control rodent populations
â¢Provide clean fresh water that is kept away from faeces
â¢Avoid feeding raw meat or offal
â¢Control the flea population
â¢Use regular tapeworm prevention
The use of a praziquantel containing preventative is essential to avoiding a tapeworm infection and should be used in cats Australia wide. Be sure to check the ingredients when choosing wormers, as not all 'All-In-One' products or 'Allwormers' cover tapeworms. Some popular cat tapeworm treatments are highlighted below.
Top Recommended Tapeworm Preventatives:
The Importance of Flea Prevention
The most common cause of tapeworm in cats is the Flea Tapeworm. This means that flea prevention plays an important role in controlling tapeworm. Even if a tapeworm treatment course is completed, a cat with fleas could easily become reinfected. All fur-family members should be on a flea preventative as the flea tapeworm could be spread between dogs and cats in the household. Infected fleas can also be introduced to the household from visiting pets, wild animals and even on your clothing. A flea preventative can kill these fleas to reduce your cat's risk of exposure to Flea Tapeworm.
Flea Prevention is also essential in preventing human members of the family from contracting tapeworm by controlling the flea numbers in the house.
Top Recommended Flea Preventatives:
Can I Get Tapeworms From My Cat?
One of the leading motivators for tapeworm prevention in our pets is the risk to human health. The tapeworms that our pets can harbour and spread into the environment can also potentially affect us. Humans can become infected with both adult tapeworms and larval stages by consuming the eggs in faeces or consuming contaminated raw meat.
In regards to the tapeworms of cats, the Flea Tapeworm is the most likely to present in humans if a contaminated flea is accidentally consumed. Children are the most at risk for harbouring adult Flea Tapeworms after swallowing a flea. Taenia and Zipper Worm species are more likely to affect humans by drinking contaminated water, eating undercooked meat or eating eggs from your cat's faeces. The larval stages of tapeworms can then form cysts in the body's tissues, such as under the skin, urinary tract, eye, nervous system, lungs or abdominal organs, which could cause a variety of different symptoms.
Controlling tapeworms in your cat, controlling fleas and being sure to wash your hands after handling cat faeces will help to prevent yourself or your family becoming contaminated with tapeworms.
Want to read more? Check out our other articles:
CDC - Diplydium FAQs
Tapeworms in Dogs and Cats - MSD Vet Manual
Australasian Animal Parasites Inside and Out
CDC - Sparganosis
Chapter 8 - Preventative Health Care for Cats by Ilona Rodan and Andrew H. Sparkes
CDC - Dipylidium Caninum
VIN - Taenia Species Tapeworms in Dogs and Cats
CVE - Canine Spirometra Infection
BowWowMeow Pet Insurance - Tapeworm in Dogs and Cats
Virbac - Intestinal Worms in Dogs and Cats
East Bundaberg Vet - Tapeworms that Affect Cats and Dogs