What are tapeworms?
Also known as 'Cestodes', tapeworms are flat, segmented worms which live in the small intestine of cats (and other mammals).
Tapeworms are hermaphroditic, which means they contain both ovaries and testes and are capable of reproducing on their own. They have a head (scolex), a neck and a segmented body (the segments are known as proglottids and collectively strobila). The head attaches to the wall of the small intestine with hook like mouthparts, once attched it begins to produce proglottids. Each proglottid has its own digestive tract, male and female reproductive organs.
Tapeworms are whitish/cream in colour with a ribbon like appearance, and can grow up to 24 inches (60 cm) in length. They are the second most common type of worm to infect cats (roundworms are the most common).
Life cycle of the tapeworm and how cats become infected with tapeworms:
The tapeworm needs two 'hosts' to complete their life cycle. First is the intermediate host (the flea or rodent), which passes the larval stage of the tapeworm around, and the final host (your cat), where the larvae develops into an adult tapeworm. Once the tapeworm reaches maturity (in around 2 - 3 weeks), proglottids, (which now contain up to 20 eggs), break off and leave the body via the feces or crawl out of the anus. Proglottids have the appearance of rice grains and are motile (capable of movement). Once outside the body, the proglottids dry out, releasing the eggs (which have the appearance of sesame seeds). Eggs are then eaten by flea larvae or accidentally ingested by a rodent and so the cycle begins once again.
- Dipylidium caninum: The most common tapeworm found in cats. The cat flea is the intermediate host of dipylidium caninum. Proglottids are passed in the feces or crawl out of the anus and are eaten by flea larvae. Once inside the flea larvae, the egg hatches and becomes cysticercoid (containing an immature scolex). The flea larvae develops into an adult flea, which goes about its business of parasitising your pet and sucking blood. Your cat then ingests the flea during grooming. Once inside the stomach, the flea is broken down and the cystercoid is released. It hooks onto the lining of the small intestinal wall and develops into an adult tapeworm. For each cystercoid ingested, one tapeworm will develop.
- Taenia taeniaeformis: The second most common tapeworm in cats. Cats become infected with taenia taeniaeformis via eating rodents containing the larval tapeworm. Rodents become infected by eating plant material contaminated with cat feces containing embryonated tapeworm eggs. Once in the small intestine of the rodent, oncospheres (tapeworm embryos) make their way to the rodent's liver where they develop into the strobilocerus stage (a fluid filled cyst containing a scolex, segmented body (strobila) and a terminal bladder). If a cat consumes the liver of a rodent containing a strobilocerus, infection occurs. Once ingested outer portion containing the strobila and bladder are digested away, leaving the scolex, which attaches to the wall of the small intestinal wall and develops into an adult tapeworm. Once again, when the tapeworm reaches maturity, proglottids exit the cat via the feces or anus, dry out and release their eggs which are consumed by a rodent. For each strobilocerus ingested by the cat, one tapeworm will develop.
Distribution of both didylidium caninum and taenia taeniaeformis is worldwide.
What are the symptoms of tapeworms in cats?
Generally there will be few outward symptoms of a tapeworm infection. Most cat owners discover their cat has tapeworm when they notice rice like segments (proglottids) around the cat's anus, in his feces and in the environment (such as bedding).
It is also possible in some cases for the tapeworm to release its attachment on the small intestinal wall and move to the stomach, the cat may then vomit up the tapeworm.
Some cats may bite or lick at their anal area or scoot their hindquarters along the floor.
The fur may also take on a poor appearance.
A heavy infestation may cause your cat to lose weight due to the tapeworm competing for nutrients with the cat.
How are tapeworms diagnosed in cats?
Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination of your cat and may notice tapeworm segments around the anus or in the feces
Diagnosis can be confirmed by performing a study of a fresh sample of feces to check for the presence of proglottids.
Are tapeworms dangerous to cats?
Generally no, tapeworms aren't harmful to cats. However, as tapeworms take nutrients from the cat a heavy infestation can cause your cat to become nutritionally deprived and lose weight.
What's the treatment for tapeworms in cats?
Your veterinarian will be able to provide you with a effective deworming medication which will kill the tapeworm(s). These may be in tablet, injection or spot on form. Once they have died, they will be digested along with the cat's food.
Common tapeworm medications include:
Profender (spot on).
Your cat and the environment will need to be treated for fleas at the same time. All bedding should be washed in hot water. All pets in the household should be treated for both tapeworm and fleas.
Can I catch tapeworms from my cat?
Yes and no. You cannot catch tapeworm directly from your cat, but if your cat has fleas, it is possible to catch tapeworm by accidentally swallowing a flea carrying the tapeworm cysticercoid. Humans are most likely to become infected with tapeworms from eating undercooked meat.
Pinworms are the most common parasitic worm to infect humans. Transmission occurs from human/human and via objects such as bedding, cats do not spread these worms.
How do I prevent tapeworm in my pet?
Stringent flea control is essential in preventing tapeworm in cats. If you treat your cat for tapeworm but don't address the problem of fleas, your cat will become re-infected with tapeworm quickly. Remember that most of the flea life cycle is spent in the environment and not on the cat, therefore you need to treat the house and outdoors for fleas at the same time as you treat your cat.
Preventing hunting in cats by keeping them indoors.