Many kittens and puppies are born with parasites in their systems, and most outdoor cats also harbor parasites. Parasites can infect a cat’s gastrointestinal tract (like stomach or intestines), heart, lungs, or even on the skin (in the case of fleas).
During this Zoom call, Indiana small animal veterinarian Dr. Leslie Brooks discusses the major parasites that can infect cats.
Fostering and behavioral specialist Liz Italia co-hosted the call and shared her experiences.
Note: We host these interactive calls exclusively with some of our customers—once every two weeks 🙌
Recorded: November 2nd, 2020.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this call are those of the guest(s) and/or host(s) and may or may not reflect the views or opinions of My Lovely Feline.
Here are the most common parasites:
- Tapeworms - These come from fleas. Little pieces of a tapeworm break off and come out of the anus. They look like little pieces of rice and are visible around the cat’s butt or where the cat has been resting. They are easy to see, diagnose, and treat.
- Giardia, coccidia, cryptosporidium - Protozoal parasites that are not visible by the naked eye. To diagnose, a stool sample needs to be viewed under a microscope.
- Roundworms - Look like spaghetti. They are usually visible in the stool and can be vomited up if the parasitic infection has spread from the intestines into the stomach.
- Hookworms - Smaller than roundworms, and usually visible in the stool.
- Whipworms - Look like a little whip. More common in dogs than cats.
- Ollanulus tricuspis and Physaloptera - Stomach worms. Sometimes a cat will vomit and you can see them.
- Tritrichomonas foetus - There isn’t a good way to treat tritrichomonas foetus, a single-celled protozoan parasite, but it’s fairly common in young cats with chronic diarrhea. A lot of cats outgrow it, especially by over a year of age, with their immune system developing and strengthening with time.
Diagnosis & Treatment
If you ever see a worm in your cat’s vomit or poop, put on gloves and put the worm in a bag for your vet. You could also just take a picture of it. It’s important to identify the type of worm because certain worms need specific medications for proper treatment.
Most over-the-counter generic dewormers treat roundworms and hookworms, but not other worms. Tapeworms, for example, need to be treated with praziquantel, which isn’t a common ingredient in most dewormers.
You’ll need to go to your vet to get a prescription for it. Tapeworms are usually eliminated after one dose of dewormer, but other worms require multiple rounds of dewormer to kill the worms at all stages of the life cycle. If you dewormed your cat, you may see dead worms in their stool.
Giardia and coccidia are very difficult to treat. They can cause nasty diarrhea, and it can take many weeks to treat an infected cat.
Many prescription flea preventatives are now also dewormers.
Where Do Parasites Come From?
Roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms come from ingesting those eggs, which can be laying in a litter box or even outside where another cat has pooped. Your cat will likely pick up these eggs somewhere on their body or paws and groom themselves. That’s how they ingest the eggs. Tapeworms come from ingesting fleas with the parasite.
Some parasites, like roundworms, are zoonotic, and are more easily transmitted to children. This can happen by an animal (not necessarily a cat) going to the bathroom in a sandbox. If a child is infected, the roundworms can migrate to different body areas and cause problems.
If your cat is diagnosed with roundworm, make sure you use gloves to clean the litter box and keep children away from the cat’s litter box. Wash your hands frequently.
Hookworms are also zoonotic. If you’re walking barefoot outside, hookworm larvae can penetrate your skin.
Signs of Parasites in Cats
Parasites are most common in younger cats, outdoor cats, or shelters where there’s a large quantity of cats living together. Often, there are minimal to no signs of parasites. Intestinal parasites like roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, toxoplasmosis, and giardia can cause diarrhea or vomiting.
Kittens infected with parasites may also have issues gaining weight or have pot bellies if they have parasites. They may also develop anemia if they have hookworm.
Heartworms are transmitted from the bite of a mosquito, and one of the few symptoms is vomiting, but it can sometimes cause sudden death.
Side Note: The Story of Linux
Liz told a short story during the call of what had happened the week before. She was working with a foster that had extreme aggression issues and had bitten many other people. He had attacked her a few times, but she was determined not to give up.
Unfortunately, he attacked her so severely one evening, with at least eight kill bites, she had to realize it was not safe to keep working with him and that his quality of life was likely suffering. She, the rescue, and the veterinary staff at the hospital decided the best and safest thing for everyone involved was to euthanize him.
Although she was completely devastated, she said she had to be honest that she couldn’t safely work with him and help him. She spoke with a behaviorist the following day, who explained that there was likely something wrong with the rage center in his brain.
Without knowing his history, it was impossible to say if it started in utero (maybe his mom was sick) after he was born or if he had some other issue like seizures or a brain tumor.
Liz was devastated but reminded everyone how important it is to make decisions that are best for the safety of all the humans and animals in the home and the well-being of the affected animal.
Q: My cat had giardia, was treated, but now I’m seeing little rice grain pieces. His fecal was negative. He’s also been on a lot of special diets, but hasn’t had a solid poop since we adopted him. Is it possible the tapeworms are causing the diarrhea?
Leslie: No. It could be tritrichomonas foetus, which would appear on a gastrointestinal panel. It could be that, it could be toxoplasmosis; I’m not sure if he was treated with clindamycin.
Customer: He’s been on tylosin, probiotic, panacur and probiotic was what he was first on. He was then on metronidazole.
Leslie: You should ask your vet about steroids because it will help with the inflammation in the gut. They might want to keep him on metronidazole or clindamycin.
Liz: You could try a company called AnimalBiome, which works with cats and dogs that have digestive issues by balancing the gut bacteria. That could be an option.
Q: Can you always see the parasites in the poop?
Leslie: Sometimes you can, but other times you can only see them with a microscope or by having a lab analyze the stool. Tapeworms are not easily visible in a stool sample but are visible if you look around a cat’s anus or where they’ve been resting.
Q: Both of our cats snore. Is that normal?
Leslie: It’s more common in overweight cats, but it can be normal.
Liz: As long as it’s not really loud, I wouldn’t be overly concerned. Sometimes when they’re resting, they’re just breathing deeply.
Q: What type of illness can they catch from killing prey?
Leslie: It’s usually an issue if they’re eating them or eating some part of their body. It’s typically from them eating the muscle. There’s a different type of tapeworm that lives in the muscle.
Liz: They can get tapeworms if the rodent has fleas.
Leslie: Another concern is if rodent bait is used, and your cat catches the rodent, they can be poisoned.
Although they are usually harmless, parasites can infect any cat, and if left untreated, they can cause discomfort, diarrhea, and vomiting.
It’s especially important to deworm new or young cats. If you let your cat go outside, make sure to use a flea preventative that’s also a dewormer, and talk with your vet about putting your cat on a deworming schedule. If your cat is having any digestive issues, consider deworming them since it’s relatively inexpensive, causes little to no side effects, and could help fix the problem.