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Tapeworms in Cats—By Dr. Leslie Brooks

Tapeworms in Cats—By Dr. Leslie Brooks

They look like little pieces of rice. They stick on the fur just under your cat’s tail and around their rear. Sometimes they even wiggle around.

YUCK! Tapeworms in cats are pesky little parasites. They are also quite misunderstood! In this article we will discuss the different types of tapeworms cats can get, how cats get them, and what effectively treats them.

How Do I Know if My Cat has Tapeworms?

Tapeworms are most often diagnosed by visual inspection alone. Cats with tapeworms usually shed little pieces of the tapeworms in their stool. These little pieces look like little pieces of rice.

You may see them in the litter box on your cat’s stool, or you may see them sticking to your cat’s fur underneath their tail and around their rectum.

Tapeworms can be difficult to diagnose by just submitting a fecal sample to look at under the microscope. This is why visualizing the little tapeworm segments that look like tiny pieces of rice is the best way to diagnose.

Types of Tapeworms Cats Can Get

There are two main types of tapeworms the domestic cat can typically become infected with. They are Dipylidium caninum and Taenia taeniaeformis.

Taenia taeniaeformis

This tapeworm is acquired by cats who hunt and ingest rodents. This is because the tapeworm often lives in the muscle and tissues of rodents and small prey animals. So, if your cat is a hunter and consumes the prey they find, it’s possible they could be infected with this tapeworm.

Dipylidium caninum

This is by far the most common tapeworm that our domestic cats get. When you see those little rice-like segments under their tail, you are looking at little segments (proglottids) that have broken off of the adult tapeworm.

These little pieces of the longer tapeworm are shed in your cat’s feces. An adult tapeworm can get as long as 11 inches living inside your cat’s intestines!

Since the Dipylidium caninum tapeworm is the MOST COMMON type cats get, we will focus only on this one in the next few sections, discussing how cats get them and how to treat them.

How Cats Get Tapeworms

So how do cats get tapeworms anyway? By eating fleas! This is why when you tell your vet you think your cat has tapeworms, the first thing they may ask is “have you seen any fleas?”.

Since cats are such avid groomers, when they have fleas they often end up ingesting the fleas as they groom or chew at their itchy body. This doesn’t always mean that when you see tapeworm proglottids that your cat currently has fleas.

Remember, the little segments break off of the adult tapeworm, which takes some time to grow in your cat’s intestines. So, occasionally when you see evidence of tapeworms, it may mean your cat had fleas a few weeks ago.

Also, cats will not get these tapeworms just by eating a segment of the worm that they pass in their stool. The only way for them to get infected by the tapeworms is to eat a flea that has the tapeworm eggs inside of them.

Are Tapeworms Harmful to my Cat?

For the most part, the Dipylidium caninum tapeworm does not cause major health issues in our cats. If a cat has a large burden of tapeworms living in their intestines, this could contribute to weight loss and malnutrition, but this would be a rare occurrence.

Every now and then tapeworms may cause your cat to vomit. This may happen if the tapeworm has migrated up into your cat’s stomach.

Finally, if the proglottids (tapeworm segments) under your cat’s tail are causing itching or irritation, your cat may scoot their rear on the ground for some relief.

How to Treat Tapeworms in Cats

Dipylidium caninum tapeworms in cats are treated with a very specific de-worming medication. Most of the over-the-counter de-wormers that claim to treat tapeworms in cats DO NOT actually treat Dipylidium caninum. This is so important to remember!

Effective De-worming Medications

To effectively treat the tapeworms that are causing those little “rice-like” segments you are seeing under your cat’s tail, the de-wormer must have the ingredient praziquantel in it. If it does not contain praziquantel, it will not treat your cat’s tapeworms.

It is very possible you will need to schedule an appointment with your vet to get a prescription of this medication.

Don’t forget flea prevention!

It is also extremely important to start your cat on flea prevention, as this will be the best way to prevent them from ingesting another flea and becoming re-infected with tapeworms. This is important even if your cat is indoor only. Fleas can be brought into the home on other pets, or even on our shoes and clothing.

While fleas are a more common problem during the warm, summer months, they can still be a nuisance in the home throughout the winter.

If fleas take up residence on pets in the home when it is warm outside, those fleas will lay hundreds of eggs within the home in a short period of time.

If the flea life cycle isn’t broken, fleas from those eggs will continue to hatch and adult fleas will continue to get on your cat inside the home all winter long.

This is why keeping all pets on flea prevention year-long, or at a minimum throughout the warm months, is key. Otherwise, your cat may continue to swallow fleas during grooming and keep getting re-infected with tapeworms.

FAQ

I don’t see fleas on my cat, so how did they get tapeworms?

Even if you aren’t seeing fleas on your cat the same day you are seeing tapeworm segments in their stool or under their tail, they likely had fleas a few weeks earlier.

Once a flea that is harboring tapeworm eggs is ingested, it takes a few days for the tapeworms to grow into adults, and then a few days for the segments to break off and shed in your cat’s feces.

Can I become infected with cat tapeworms?

Not unless you eat a flea! The way for people to become infected with cat tapeworms is just like how cats become infected- by eating a flea. So, as long as you don’t accidentally swallow a flea you should be okay.

Can any over-the-counter de-worming medication treat tapeworms in my cat?

No- the de-wormer must contain the active ingredient of praziquantel to treat the most common type of tapeworm that cats get, Dipylidium caninum.

Conclusions

The most common type of tapeworm that our domestic cats get is Dipylidium caninum. They get infected with these tapeworms by ingesting infected fleas. Effective de-wormers must contain the ingredient praziquantel. The prevent tapeworms in cats, flea prevention is key. 



Article by Dr. Leslie Brooks 👩‍⚕️
Veterinarian