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Intestinal Worms in Cats

Ginger cat with veterinarian.

What are intestinal worms?

There are eight different types of intestinal worms which can infect your cat, with the two most common types being roundworms and tapeworms. Hookworms are also becoming more common. All pose a serious health risk to your cat if they go untreated.

Roundworms (Toxocara cati and Toxascaris leonina)

There are two types of roundworm; toxocara cati and toxascaris leonine.  These long, spaghetti like parasites live inside and feed off the intestines. Their eggs are passed out in the cat’s faeces or in a mother’s milk.

What are the symptoms of roundworms?

Not all cats show symptoms but once infected with large numbers your cat may show the following symptoms:-

  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Diarrhoea
  • Vomiting
  • Coarse, rough fur
  • Swollen stomach (particularly noticeable in kittens)

If you pet is showing any of these symptom, take them to your vet.

How do cats get roundworms?

Cats can become infected by their mother, contaminated soil or by consuming contaminated meat or prey (ie mice, voles and birds) that have eaten worm eggs.

The toxocara cati larvae is passed out in the cat’s faeces but can also be passed from mother to kitten through the mother’s milk. When a female can is infected with roundworm, some of the roundworm larvae can remain dormant in certain body tissue. This causes no harm to the cat but once she gives birth the larvae migrate to the mammary gland where they are passed on to the kitten through the mother’s milk. This makes kittens particularly susceptible to becoming infected with roundworm from birth.

Roundworm eggs are microscopic so on examination of a cat’s faeces, infection is not evident.

Tapeworm (Dipylidium caninum and Taenia taeniae formins)

Tapeworms live in the small intestines, latching onto the lining of the cat’s bowels and absorbing nutrients as food is digested. It has a segmented body with, as the name suggests, a flat appearance.

What are the symptoms of tapeworms?

The tapeworm is made up of small segments, and when excreted can look like grains of rice.  These segments can be seen in the cat’s faeces or around the anus. Physical symptoms your cat may exhibit are: –

  • Diarrhoea
  • Lethargy
  • Scooting (dragging bottom on the floor)
  • Weight loss with increased appetite
  • Excessive licking of anus

How do cats get tapeworms?

As with other types of worms, a cat can become infected by consuming contaminated food, soil and faeces, however, the most common way of contracting tapeworms is by ingesting fleas or flea eggs through grooming. Keeping up with flea treatment is crucial as a single flea can infect your cat with tapeworm.

Hookworms (Ancylostoma tubaeforme)

These blood sucking parasites are 5-16 mm in length and live in the small intestine.  Infection is becoming increasingly common due to the rise in the fox population as many are carriers. The eggs are deposited in the soil in the foxes’ faeces.  There the eggs hatch and can be picked up on a cat’s paws.

What are the symptoms of hookworms?

Symptoms are similar to roundworm with the addition of dark stools, diarrhoea and anaemia.  Most infections are not life threatening but can cause fatal blood loss in kittens with severe infections.

How do cats get hookworms?

Similar to roundworm, pets can become infected by ingesting the larvae when grooming after walking across contaminated soil.  Hookworm larvae can also penetrate the skin so merely walking across contaminated ground poses a risk of infection. The larva can also be ingested by eating infected prey, such as rodents.

Diagnosis of intestinal worms

Other than in the case of tapeworms (see above), it is difficult to tell if your cat has intestinal worms.  Your pet can have worms without showing any obvious signs of illness. Usually only minor signs can be seen.  This can result in your cat shedding the worm eggs in their faeces, infecting other animals.  If you do suspect your cat has worms take them along to your vet and if you see any worms on or near your cat, wrap them in damp cotton wool and take them with you. The vet will want to hear about any symptoms of ill health your pet has been showing and will give a thorough examination. To confirm diagnosis the vet is likely to want to examine a faecal sample under a microscope by conducting a faecal flotation test and/or take a blood test.

What treatment is available for intestinal worms?

There are many different worming products available which can come as combination treatments, to control worms and fleas, or separate treatments.  These treatments can be administered as tablets, syrups, powders, spot-on treatments or by injection from your vet. Treatments can also be purchased from a variety of outlets such as pet shops, supermarkets and the internet. Speak to your vet about the best and most effective treatment to use for your pet.

From six weeks of age, kittens should receive preventative treatment every month then from 6 months old, every three months. Adult cats can be treated every two to six months.

How to prevent intestinal worms

It is virtually impossible to prevent your cat from becoming infected with worms as they are so prevalent and so most cats will be infected.  You can, however, prevent your cat from becoming ill with effective worm control which will get rid of any worms present at the time of treatment (see above).

Roundworms and hookworms can infect humans, so it is important to control infection in your cat.  Use gloves when gardening and ensure sand boxes are covered when not in use.  When children come in from playing outside, get them to wash their hands in case they have come into contact with infected soil or grass.