Cat World > Feline Parasites > Tapeworms in Cats

Tapeworms (Cestodes) in Cats

What are tapeworms?

tapeworm in catsAlso known as 'cestodes', tapeworms are flat, segmented worms which live in the small intestine of cats (and other mammals). Tapeworms have no mouth or digestive tract themselves, and must obtain their food source pre-digested. They have a tough outer skin that is capable of withstanding the strong digestive juices. This skin is porous and your cat's pre-digested food is absorbed through the tapeworm's skin. 

There are approximately 5,000 species of tapeworm in the world, each of which has a specific host,  only a small number of tapeworms infect cats. The two most common tapeworms found in cats are dipylidium caninum and taenia taeniaeformis.

Distribution of both dipylidium caninum and taenia taeniaeformis is worldwide.

What do tapeworms look like?

TapewormTapeworms 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).

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 hooks. Once attached to the intestinal wall the tapeworm begins to produce proglottids. Each proglottid has its own digestive tract, male and female reproductive organs.

What is the life cycle and how do cats become infected with tapeworm?

The tapeworm needs two hosts to complete their lifecycle. First is the intermediate host (the flea or a rodent), which passes the larval stage of the tapeworm around, and the final host (your cat), where the larvae develop into an adult tapeworm.  

Once the tapeworm reaches maturity (at around 2-3 weeks), proglottids, (which  contain up to 20 eggs), break off and leave the body of the tapeworm 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.

Cats become infected when they kill and eat an infected rodent with the strobilocercus stage cysts in the liver or by ingesting an infected flea during grooming.

  • Flea transmission - Dipylidium caninum: This is 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 develop 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 cysticercoid is released. It hooks onto the lining of the small intestinal wall and develops into an adult tapeworm. For each cysticercoid ingested, one tapeworm will develop.

  • Rodent transmission - Taenia taeniaeformis: The second most common type of tapeworm in cats. Cats become infected with taenia taeniaeformis via infected rodents containing the larval tapeworm. Rodents become infected when they eat 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 strobilocercus 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 strobilocercus, 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 strobilocercus ingested by the cat, one tapeworm will develop.

What are the symptoms of tapeworms in cats?

Most tapeworm infections in cats are asymptomatic and the  cat owners only become aware of infection when they notice rice like segments (proglottids) around the cat's anus, the fur around the tail, in his feces and in the environment (such as bedding) or feces with characteristic sesame seeds (tapeworm eggs) throughout.

It is also possible in some cases for the tapeworm to release its attachment to the small intestinal wall and move to the stomach, the cat may then vomit up the tapeworm.

Heavy infestations may produce symptoms including:

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 or tapeworm eggs by fecal floatation.

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 an 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:

  • Praziquantel (Drontal, Aristopet, Milbemax, Paraguard, Virbac)

  • Praziquantel and Febantel (Drontal Plus, Popantel)

  • Fenbendazole (Panacur)

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 or in a cat enclosure.

Cats should be treated regularly for fleas and worms. Kittens and cats should be wormed as follows*

  • Every 2 weeks from 2 weeks of age until the kitten is 12 weeks old.

  • Every month from 12 weeks of age until 6 months.

  • Every three months from 6 months.

*Some worming treatment schedules may vary, always follow the instructions on the pack.

Last edited 13th August 2016.

Also read:

Hookworms   Roundworms   Lungworms   Heartworms