Tapeworms in Cats

Tapeworms are the most common internal parasite in adult cats. They live in the small intestines, and vary in length from less than 1 inch (25 mm) to several feet (1 foot is .3 meters). The scolex (head) of the parasite fastens itself to the wall of the gut using hooks and suckers. The body is composed of segments that contain egg packets. To eliminate tapeworm infection, the head must be destroyed. Otherwise, the worm will regenerate.

The body segments containing the eggs are passed in the feces. These are called proglottids. Fresh moist segments are capable of moving. They are about .25 inches (6.3 mm) long. Occasionally, you might see them in the fur about your cat's anus or in her stool. When dry, they resemble grains of rice.

There are two common tapeworm species found in cats; both are transmitted by an intermediate host. Dipylidium caninum is acquired from fleas or lice that harbor immature tapeworms in their intestines. These insects acquire the parasite by eating tapeworm eggs. The cat must bite or swallow the insect to become infested. The tapeworm Taenia taeniaformis is acquired by eating rodents, uncooked meat, raw freshwater fish, or discarded animal parts.

Dibothriocephalus latus and Spirometra mansonoides are two uncommon tapeworms cats might acquire from eating uncooked freshwater fish or a water snake. Spirometra mansonoides is seen primarily in outdoor cats along the Gulf Coast region. Dibothriocephalus latus might be seen in the Gulf Coast region or around the Great Lakes. Echinococcus tapeworms are rarely found in cats.

Treatment: Praziquantal is one of the most effective medications for both common species of cat tapeworm. Other suitable treatments are fenbendazole and espiprantal. Use under veterinary guidance. Deworming must be combined with control of fleas and lice, in the case of Dipylidium caninum, and by preventing roaming and hunting in the case of other tapeworms.

Public health considerations: A child could acquire a tapeworm if they accidentally swallowed an infected flea. Except for this unusual circumstance, cat tapeworms do not present a hazard to human health.

This article is excerpted from “Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook” with permission from Wiley Publishing, Inc.