Image via iStock.com/Indira Komekbayeva
By Dr. Sandra Mitchell, DVM
“What is that white, wiggling grain of rice under my cat’s tail? How disgusting!”
This is something we hear very commonly from pet owners. Most likely, the white, maggot-like parasite is actually a tapeworm segment. Sometimes they are still moving and crawling through the fur, and other times, they are just dried-up white splotches that you find on your kitty or where she has been sleeping.
How common are tapeworms in cats? And can humans get tapeworms from cats?
Tapeworms in cats are very common, and the good news is that for the most part, it’s a fairly minor problem which is easily addressed.
Types of Tapeworms in Cats
Please be aware that there are two different types of tapeworms found in cats.
The most common tapeworm is called Dipylidium caninum. These are easy-to-treat tapeworms in cats, and they are not contagious to humans.
Dipylidium is something veterinarians see every day. These worms can be very long—up to 20 inches! They are flat with mouthparts that can attach to the lining of a cat’s intestine, where they feed.
When these worms are mature, they drop small segments (called proglottids), which then pass through the intestinal tract into the feces. These are the wiggling white pieces that you might find on the cat’s anal area or bed.
As gross as these worms are, fortunately, they rarely cause any significant harm to your kitty. However, the sight of a long, flat worm is certainly enough to turn the stomach of most cat owners!
A second form of tapeworm that can be seen in cats in some parts of the US, although very rarely, is called Echinococcus.
This form of tapeworm can be contagious to humans and is considered to be dangerous, but it is extremely uncommon. You can discuss with your veterinarian whether this form of tapeworm is of concern where you live—but keep in mind that it is very rare.
How Did My Cat Get Tapeworms?
So how do cats get these lovely parasites? There are two main modes of transmission. The first, and most common, is through fleas. If the cat swallows a flea infested with a “baby tapeworm” while grooming, that worm will mature within the intestinal cat of the track with time.
The other common way a cat becomes infected is through hunting small mammals such as mice. Once again, when the worm is in the intestinal tract, it can mature and infect kitty with the parasite.
How Do You Diagnose Tapeworms in Cats?
How do you know if your cat has tapeworms? The most common way that owners discover tapeworms is by finding the segments on the cat or on the cat’s bedding. Sometimes, it is possible to find a long, flat worm that has been vomited.
Often, your veterinarian might find the eggs of the tapeworm in your cat’s feces during a fecal exam, although the eggs are so large that sometimes they do not show up well under the microscope. If your kitty has fleas, it is likely a safe assumption that other friends—aka tapeworms—are along for the ride as well. And if your cat hunts a lot, she likewise also has tapeworms.
How to Prevent Your Cat From Getting Tapeworms
So what do we do about these disgusting parasites? The best thing to do overall is to prevent kitty from becoming infested—which means using a high-quality prescription flea and tick medicine every single month, whether kitty goes outside or not, since fleas can hitchhike into the house on humans and clothing.
There are many good flea products on the market, but not all are safe for cats, so be sure to ask your veterinarian what is appropriate for your pet. Common flea medicine for cats includes Revolution, Advantage II, Vectra and Frontline. These are best used year-round, even in cold climates.
Another important step in preventing tapeworms is to keep your cat from hunting. Keeping cats inside the house and maintaining appropriate rodent control will help make sure that your kitty doesn’t have an unauthorized rodent “snack” that brings the parasite along with it.
How to Treat Tapeworm in Cats
So how do we actually treat tapeworms in cats? There are several types of deworming medicine for cats that are very effective in getting rid of tapeworms. Many can be given orally, although some are given by injection.
Most require at least two doses to be effective, and remember, as soon as kitty hunts again, the parasites will be right back. Also, if you are not controlling a flea problem in the house, the tapeworms will be back.
Remember to treat ALL of the animals living in the house—including exotic pets like ferrets, guinea pigs and rabbits, as well as dogs and cats! As a rule, if there are fleas in the house, all dogs and cats in the house will need to be treated for tapeworms, even if they aren’t showing signs of infection.
As disgusting as tapeworms are, the vast majority of them are not contagious to people and do not cause any significant problems to cats. They are generally symptoms of a larger problem, such as a flea infestation or hunting small mammals that are able to transmit other, more significant, parasites.
Working with your veterinarian, you should be able to quickly resolve the problem for both you and your kitty—before you step on a hairball loaded with 20 inches of wiggling worm!