Roundworms in Cats

Roundworms in cats are common intestinal parasites. While nobody likes thinking about parasites infesting their pets, knowing the symptoms and treatment options is vital for conscientious cat owners and can help you catch a parasite infection before it gets out of hand.

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What are roundworms in cats?

Roundworms are a parasite found in cats and other animals that live in the small intestine and steal nutrients from the cat’s diet. Roundworms infect almost all cats at some point in their life, often as kittens. 

There are two types of roundworms that affect cats:

  • Toxocara cati: is the most common type of roundworm and often appears in kittens as their larvae can be ingested through the mother's milk. Both cats and kittens can also ingest eggs from eating rodents or other parasitic carriers. Once ingested and in the digestive system, the eggs hatch into larvae.

  • Toxascara leonina: is less common and typically seen in older cats. Their lifecycle is much more simple than Toxocara cati where the eggs are shed in the feces, and once ingested they develop into adult roundworms in the intestines.  

While healthy adult cats can typically survive a roundworm infestation, large numbers of the parasites can cause serious, even life-threatening symptoms and are a common cause of illness. In many cases, they are a cause of death, particularly for kittens and cats with already existing health problems.

What do roundworms look like in cats?

Roundworms are large-bodied and cylindrical in shape. Growing up to 3-6 inches long and a white or light brown color, they can look like a piece of spaghetti and are easy to spot with the naked eye.

Signs & symptoms of roundworms in cats

Signs and symptoms of roundworms in cats are similar to the symptoms of other feline intestinal parasites.

  • Lack of growth (in kittens)

  • Dull coat

  • Pot-bellied appearance

  • Visible worms in vomit and feces

  • Coughing

  • Diarrhea with mucus

Roundworms are particularly common in kittens. These parasites make it difficult for your kitten to absorb the nutrients they need, which can cause your kitten to stop growing, have a dull coat and a pot-bellied appearance. If you notice any such loss of condition, contact your veterinarian straight away.

During the early stages of infestation, roundworm larvae migrate, which can cause a type of pneumonia and lead to coughing. As the infection progresses, you may also notice worms in your cat’s vomit or feces.

How do cats get roundworms?

Cats can contract both types of roundworms through the environment or from mother to kitten.

Common causes are:

  • Consuming another animal infected with roundworms, like a rodent

  • Ingesting roundworm eggs

  • Nursing from an infected queen (mother cat)

Cats can easily ingest roundworm eggs that are present in the environment, which then hatch into larvae and migrate through their bodies.

Cats that hunt are particularly susceptible to roundworms, as the parasite is common in wild animals. However, while outdoor cats may have an increased risk of ingesting an infected animal, that does not mean your indoor cat is entirely safe. Kittens can get toxascaris cati from their mothers while nursing, although this route is uncommon. Toxascaris leonina cannot be spread this way.

Diagnosing roundworms in cats

Roundworms in cats are diagnosed through a fecal examination. Your veterinarian will examine your cat’s feces for roundworm eggs and determine the species of roundworm, as toxascaris cati can pass to humans.

Bring a fecal sample to your veterinarian if your cat is exhibiting signs of intestinal parasites like roundworms. It will help with accurately and swiftly diagnosing your cat’s condition. You may even find out your cat has roundworms during a routine veterinary visit, which is one of the reasons it is essential to bring your cat in for regular exams.

What is the prognosis for a cat diagnosed with roundworms?

Simple cases of roundworms in adults are fortunately very easy to treat with a course of medication, and your cat is likely to make a full recovery. However, in cases with very heavy parasite loads, cats with health issues, or in kittens, complications can occur, and additional supportive treatment may be required. In some cases, roundworm infestations can prove fatal.

Roundworm treatment for cats

There are several medications for treating roundworm in cats, including fenbendazole, emodepside, milbemycin, piperazine, moxidectin, selamectin, and pyrantel. Your veterinarian will select the remedy best suited for your cat.

These medications target and kill roundworms in various stages of their life cycles, but the eggs can remain in the environment even with treatment. Preventative measures are the best way to prevent future infections.

However, as medications only treat the adult form of roundworms and larvae need time to mature in the cat's system for medication to work, the dose may need to be repeated until the full lifecycle of roundworms has died off. Typically treatment will need to be repeated at the two to three week mark.

Is there a cure for roundworms in cats?

The cure for roundworm in cats is parasite control. Keeping up on your cat’s preventative medications can prevent and cure roundworm infections.

Are roundworms in cats contagious for humans or other pets?

Roundworms are contagious for humans and other pets. About 10,000 cases of roundworms are reported in humans each year in the United States. Most people don’t show any symptoms of roundworm infection.

However, fever, eosinophilia (elevated levels of a type of white blood cell), and an abnormal enlargement of the liver can occur. The migrating larvae can even enter the eye, a condition known as ocular larva migrans. Talk to your veterinarian and physician about the best ways to prevent a human roundworm infection and educate all members of the household about proper hygiene techniques.

Other pets, including dogs, can also contract roundworms from your cat. Your veterinarian may suggest preventative measures for the other pets in your household.

What is the cost of treating roundworms in cats?

Roundworms in cats are relatively affordable to treat compared to other medical conditions. Be prepared to pay for the cost of an office visit as well as the diagnostics necessary to diagnose roundworms. The cost of the medication may vary, so consider working parasite prevention into your yearly budget, and talk to your veterinarian about the monthly parasite prevention options available.

Recovery and management of roundworms in cats

Managing roundworms takes time. Roundworm eggs stick to surfaces and can become mixed in with dust or soil. If your household has suffered from a roundworm infection, educate all family members about proper hygiene, like hand washing, to reduce the risk of a human infection.

Breeders can reduce the risk of transmission of roundworms from queens to kittens by treating queens with appropriate medication (a single dose of emodepside/praziquantel spot-on) during the final week of pregnancy. Treat kittens with the medication your veterinarian recommends at 3, 5, 7, and 9 weeks old, and monthly after that until they’re 6 six months old. Treating the mother at the same time will help lower the risk of infection.

Preventing roundworms in cats

Preventing roundworms in cats is as simple as keeping them up to date on parasite control. Many heartworm preventatives already contain medications that prevent and treat roundworms. If your cat’s heartworm preventative contains milbemycin, milbemycin/praziquantel, selamectin, or moxidectin/imidacloprid, your cat is already on a roundworm preventative.

Talk to your veterinarian about the appropriate frequency for roundworm prevention in adult cats. Even indoor cats can encounter roundworms in their environment, primarily if they hunt.

Is there a vaccine for roundworms in cats?

There is no vaccine for roundworms. However, there are preventatives. Talk to your veterinarian about the parasites common in your area and how you can protect your cat.

Summary of roundworms in cats

Roundworms in cats are common intestinal parasites that prevent them from getting the nutrients they need. Common symptoms include visible worms in feces, a dull coat and lack of growth in kittens. Thankfully, roundworm can be easily prevented with monthly preventatives. Speak to your veterinarian about appropriate preventative medications to keep your cat safe from parasites.

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