Hookworms are one of the more common intestinal parasites that cats may suffer from. They invade and live in the cat’s small intestine, disrupting its digestive system. If untreated, a hookworm infestation can be fatal, especially in kittens.
Signs and Symptoms of Hookworms
Not all cats infected with hookworms show signs of infestation, but there are certain symptoms to be on the lookout for. These include:
- Lesions on the bottom of the paws and in between the toes where the hookworm has entered the skin
- Coughing (an indicator that the hookworm larvae have gotten into the lungs through ingestion)
- Dark, tarry stool
If a cat is infected with hookworms, she may experience weight loss and a decrease in appetite; in the long term, weakness occasionally develops. The cat may develop anemia as a result of bloodsucking by the worms. (It has been estimated that the amount of blood loss due to a single worm in 24 hours can be up to 0.1 mL.) Pale gums can also be an indicator.
The symptoms may not be as pronounced in older cats as they are in kittens. If left untreated, hookworms can be fatal, especially in kittens.
How Did My Cat Get Hookworms?
A cat can become infected with hookworms in a few ways.
Hookworm eggs are passed through the feces, where they then hatch into larvae. Cats may contract hookworms via drinking water infested with the larvae; ingestion of animals/rodents infected with hookworms; or larval penetration of the skin, usually through the feet when walking on infected soil, sand, or litter. Kittens can become infected when drinking their mother’s milk.
Outdoor cats and those in shelters are more at risk for becoming infected with hookworms, although indoor cats can still contract this common parasite.
Once the larvae are inside the cat’s body, they make their way to the lungs, then the small intestine, where they attach themselves to the intestinal wall. There, they feed on the cat’s blood and mature into adult worms. The adult worms reproduce eggs that then pass through the stool. It usually takes anywhere between two and four weeks from the time of the initial infestation for the cat to be able to pass the hookworms to other cats, animals, and/or humans.
Diagnosing Hookworms in Cats
Hookworm eggs and larvae are not visible to the naked eye, so diagnosis requires microscopic examination of the cat’s stool. The stool is mixed with a solution that allows the eggs to float to the top of the sample, making them visible under the microscope. Hookworms typically reproduce on a daily basis, so infestations are easily noticeable. Some laboratories also test the cat’s stool for hookworm antigens (proteins specific to hookworms), which is an even more sensitive and accurate test.
Once a cat tests positive for hookworms, there may be a need for additional testing, including a urinalysis and blood work, so your vet can determine the necessary course of action. These tests will look for low hemoglobin levels, which are indicative of anemia, and low kidney function resulting from dehydration. (The necessity for these additional tests is determined by the cat’s overall health and clinical signs.)
Treating Your Cat for Hookworms
A number of drugs and drug combinations are approved for the treatment of hookworm infections.
In certain cases, killing the hookworms is not enough to save a severely affected cat’s life. If there is a substantial amount of blood loss, a transfusion may be necessary to keep the cat alive until she can replace her own lost red blood cells. Iron and nutritional supplements may also be needed until iron levels return to normal.
Pregnant cats infected with hookworms should be given the medication two weeks after breeding and continue treatment until two to four weeks after giving birth to get rid of any possible worms in the intestine and lower the risk of infecting their newborn kittens.
Infected kittens should be given medication after they have reached three to four weeks of age and continue treatment once a month to ensure that all of the hookworms have been expelled.
In severe cases, if the cat is dehydrated, hospitalization may be required. Fluids will be administered intravenously with frequent tests to ensure the heart and kidneys are responding well to the fluid therapy.
Is There a Cure for Hookworms?
Yes, hookworms can usually be cured with medication. It’s important to try to catch and treat the infestation as early as possible, as severe or chronic hookworm infestations can be seriously debilitating for your cat.
Are Hookworms Contagious for Humans or Other Pets?
Hookworms are contagious, and can be passed not only to other cats but dogs as well. They can also be hazardous to humans—while human infection is rare, it is possible. When caring for a cat with hookworms, it’s important to wear gloves when cleaning the litter box and to wash your hands thoroughly.
What Is the Cost for Treating Hookworms?
The cost to deworm your cat depends on factors such as the area in which you live as well as the degree of infestation.
Other costs to consider are:
- Initial vet check up
- Fecal test
- Additional tests to determine if the worms are gone
- Drug treatment plan
- Follow-up visits
Recovery and Management of Hookworms
If caught early on, the prognosis for recovery is excellent. How long it takes for your cat to feel better depends on your cat’s clinical signs, as well as the treatment option prescribed by your veterinarian. Most medications begin to take effect within a few days, but you may be advised to continue administering medication for a longer period of time. You will need to schedule a follow-up visit three to four weeks after treatment is completed to ensure re-infestation does not occur.
Proactively trying to prevent hookworm infestations will help keep your cat healthy. This is especially true for kittens, who are at a higher risk for hookworms. Some tips include:
- Keep a clean environment: Fecal matter and bodily fluids are a common source of parasites. Once you’ve dewormed your cat, a good way to prevent future infestations is to keep your cat’s litter box and living area clean at all times.
- Monthly medication: Monthly heartworm medications have been proven to prevent some types of internal parasites. Ask your vet whether a heartworm medication is right for your cat.
- Diet: A balanced, nutritious diet can help keep your cat healthy and strong. A weakened immune system leaves pets more susceptible to worms.
- Fecal exams: Adult cats should have their feces tested one to two times a year to check for parasites.
- Keep your cat indoors: Outdoor cats should be monitored very closely since they have a greater chance of coming into contact with infested animals and soil; they may also be drinking water from contaminated sources.
- Tests: Have your cat tested periodically for the feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and the feline immunodeficiency virus ([FIV]). Both of these viruses can weaken your cat’s immune system and make them more susceptible to parasites and other illnesses.
If you plan on bringing an additional cat or kitten into your home, be sure to have her tested for intestinal parasites before introducing her to your other pets.
Deworming (i.e., treating either confirmed or suspected cases of hookworms with medication) is important to your pet’s overall health—especially for kittens, who are most susceptible to contracting worms. The following deworming schedule is often recommended for kittens:
- 2 weeks
- 4 weeks
- 6 weeks
- 8 weeks
- 12 & 16 weeks
- 6 months, and then a year later
However, not every kitten requires such a rigorous deworming schedule, so please consult with your veterinarian. Once your cat has reached adulthood, your vet can also advise on whether further deworming is needed.
Is There a Vaccine for Hookworms?
There is no vaccination available to prevent hookworms.
Hookworm infestations can be severely debilitating for your cat, and even fatal, particularly for kittens, so it’s important to consult your vet immediately if you suspect your cat has been infected with hookworms. Frequently deworming your cat, having regular fecal exams and practicing good litter box hygiene can help control hookworm infections.