Tapeworms in Cats

Tapeworms in cats are common intestinal parasites. Understanding the symptoms, treatment options, and preventative measures for tapeworms can help you keep your cat active and healthy, as well as lower the risk of transmitting tapeworms to humans and other pets.

In This Article

What are tapeworms in cats?

Tapeworms are intestinal parasites that can affect both outdoor and indoor cats. Cats can get several types of tapeworms, but the most commonly diagnosed tapeworms in cats in the United States are Dipylidium, Caninum and Taenia Taeniaeformis.

Signs & symptoms of tapeworms in cats

Tapeworms rarely cause serious diseases. Symptoms of tapeworms in cats may vary by case. Your cat’s age, condition, and extent of the infection may also affect the range of clinical signs. Signs and symptoms of tapeworms in cats include:

  • Shaggy coat

  • Unpredictable appetite

  • Irritability

  • Failure to thrive

  • Mild diarrhea

  • Emaciation

  • Seizures

  • Intestinal blockages and complications

  • Tapeworm segments that look like grains of rice in feces

A cat with tapeworms may present with some, all, or none of these signs. Cats with small infection levels may not show any symptoms at all, while cats with larger loads may have rarer and more serious symptoms, like seizures, intestinal blockages, and drastically decreased body conditions.

Healthy adult cats tend to show fewer symptoms, while kittens and cats with compromised immune systems might have more.

You may also see tapeworms themselves. Tapeworms shed segments called proglottids that look like grains of rice. These segments can be either white or golden in color, and can be found in cat feces as well as around the anus.

How do cats get tapeworms?

Cats can contract tapeworms in several ways, depending on the species of tapeworm. Most tapeworms require an intermediate host, which cats must ingest to contract the parasite.

Common causes include:

  • Eating fleas

  • Eating rats, mice, and other rodents

  • Eating frogs or snakes

  • Eating fish

Dipylidium caninum is the most common type of tapeworms in both cats and dogs. This tapeworm uses fleas as an intermediate host, which can complicate treatment. When these tapeworms pass proglottids into the environment, the segments dry, turn golden in color, and release the eggs into the environment. These eggs are then ingested by flea larvae, which in turn are ingested by cats during grooming or scratching once the fleas mature into adults. Tapeworms then migrate to the cat’s small intestine, where they attach to the intestinal wall to feed.

The other common tapeworm in cats, taenia taeniaeformis, uses rats, mice, and other rodents as an intermediate host. Taenia tapeworm larvae migrate through the intestinal wall of their intermediate hosts and develop into the next stage, forming liver cysts that are then consumed by predatory cats. Still, more tapeworm hosts include reptiles, amphibians, and even fish, all of which can be consumed by curious hunters.

Are certain cats more likely to get tapeworms?

Since tapeworms are often contracted via fleas, cats inside a flea-infested home are highly susceptible, as well as those that spend time outside in moist, shady, and cool places – where fleas tend to thrive. 

Outdoor cats who like to hunt are also more at risk of contracting tapeworms via rodents or other prey.

Diagnosing tapeworms in cats

Veterinarians diagnose tapeworms in cats through a fecal examination. A diagnosis can be made once evidence of tapeworms, either in the form of eggs or proglottids, is discovered in the feces. Veterinarians then diagnose the type of tapeworm through a microscopic examination or a diagnostic PCR test. Diagnosing the type of tapeworm is essential for proper treatment and management, as treating environmental factors may be necessary to prevent reinfection.

Tapeworms shed proglottids intermittently, which means that your veterinarian may not be able to accurately diagnose your cat’s condition right away, as there may be no physical evidence of tapeworms in your cat’s feces. If you notice any abnormalities that you suspect could be proglottids in your cat’s litter box, be sure to collect the sample in a plastic bag so that your veterinarian can inspect it.

Treatment for tapeworms in cats

Medications that are specifically designed to eliminate parasites treat tapeworms in cats. In cats, these medications include epsiprantel, praziquantel, and fenbendazole. Epsiprantel and praziquantel are used to treat both dipylidium and taenia, and veterinarians may recommend fenbendazole for taenia tapeworms in some cases as well. Treatment for fleas will also be needed.

In severe cases of tapeworm infection, veterinarians might also have to treat complications like intestinal blockages. It can require additional diagnostic imaging, procedures, and medication to resolve.

Is there a cure for tapeworms in cats?

Yes. Tapeworms in cats can be cured with deworming medications like epsiprantel, praziquantel, and fenbendazole. While these medications will eliminate tapeworms from your cat’s intestinal tract, they do not guarantee protection from reinfection, which is why it’s important to treat any underlying cause, such as a flea infestation, and follow good hygiene practices when cleaning the litter box.

Are tapeworms in cats contagious for humans or other pets?

Certain tapeworms can be contagious for humans and other pets. Humans, especially infants, can contract dipylidium caninum if they swallow an infected flea in a household with a tapeworm infestation. Humans can also contract several other species of tapeworm, including echinococcus multilocularis and diphyllobothrium tapeworm species.

What is the cost of treating Tapeworms?

Tapeworms in cats are relatively inexpensive to treat. You can expect to pay for the medication, the cost of the office visit, and any diagnostics required for diagnosing your cat’s condition. In severe cases of tapeworm infections, you might also need to pay for additional treatment methods, like supportive care.

Recovery and management of tapeworms in cats

Different species of tapeworms require different management strategies. For instance, if your cat is diagnosed with dipylidium caninum, you will need to treat your cat, home, and other pets for fleas as well as tapeworms to prevent reinfection. Flea infestations can be tricky to manage, and can also expose other cats and dogs in the home to tapeworms. Your veterinarian can help you come up with the best treatment plan for removing fleas safely from your home, as well as the best flea preventative for your area.

Taenia taeniaeformis tapeworms, on the other hand, are transmitted through rodents. It may be impossible to stop an outdoor cat from hunting, which may mean you’ll need to make regular veterinary visits to monitor your cat for reinfection. Indoor cats that hunt are also at risk, and if there is a tapeworm infestation in your home’s rodent population, it might be time to consider removing unwanted houseguests.

Preventing tapeworms in cats

Luckily, tapeworms can be prevented. Most veterinarians recommend deworming kittens during their kitten vaccination wellness visits, eliminating tapeworms and other parasites. As your cat grows, keeping them on flea preventatives will reduce the risk of contracting the most common tapeworms in their environment: dipylidium caninum.

Monthly feline preventatives do not contain the medications needed to eliminate tapeworms in cats. However, regular veterinary visits with fecal analysis can catch tapeworm infections.

Is there a vaccine for tapeworms in cats?

There is no vaccine for tapeworms. Vaccines are only available for viral diseases, but talk to your veterinarian about deworming your kitten during regular vaccination series.

Summary of tapeworms in cats

Tapeworms in cats are common intestinal parasites that often cause diarrhea. Infections can range from mild to potentially life-threatening, but are easily cured with medication. Deworming kittens during early wellness visits reduces their chances of contracting tapeworms, and regular veterinary visits throughout your cat’s life will further reduce the risk of contracting parasites and other diseases.

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