Gastrointestinal parasites, commonly referred to as “worms,” are unfortunately all too common in pet cats. Intestinal worms live inside your cat’s body, where they can wreak havoc on your pet’s health.
You might not know that your cat has worms unless you see telltale signs (more about that below) or if your cat is heavily infested and begins to display physical symptoms that she has worms.
Veterinarians at Cornell University estimate that up to 45% of cats may be infected with worms. The most common intestinal parasites that infect cats are roundworms, hookworms, tapeworms, coccidia and Giardia.
How Do Cats Get Worms?
Cats can become infected by intestinal parasites in several different ways, depending on the specific parasite and the age of the cat. Cats most at risk are kittens, cats that go outdoors, or cats coming from places where large numbers of cats are house together like animal shelters, pet stores, or breeding catteries.
Kittens often get infected from their mother during nursing because some worms can be passed from mama cat to the kittens through the mother’s milk. It’s very common for kittens to be infected with worms, so they are routinely dewormed at each vaccination appointment early in kittenhood.
Adult cats and kittens can also be infected with intestinal parasites by sharing food and water bowls or litter boxes with infected cats, eating rodents (roundworms or tapeworms), ingesting feces or contaminated soil or plant material (roundworms, hookworms, coccidia or Giardia), walking across contaminated feces or soil (hookworms) or swallowing a flea (tapeworms).
What Kind Of Worms Do Cats Get?
Cats can get many different internal parasites. Some of the most common worms seen in pet cats include:
Roundworms (Toxocara cati and Toxascaris leonine) are the most common intestinal parasites in cats. Although any cat can become infected with roundworms, they are extremely common in kittens.
Kittens that are infected with roundworms frequently have a telltale potbelly (distended abdomen). Roundworms live in the intestines, where they feed on the food your cat eats. Over time, roundworm infestation can contribute to malnutrition. Roundworms can be transmitted to people.
Hookworms are small worms that attach themselves to the lining of the intestines, where they feed on your cat’s blood. Severe hookworm infestations can cause anemia.
Cats become infected when they ingest hookworm larvae or walk on contaminated feces, cat litter or soil. When a cat walks on a surface contaminated with hookworms, the larvae enters the body by penetrating the skin. Hookworms can be transmitted to people and other pets.
Cats or kittens commonly contract tapeworms when they swallow an infected flea during self-grooming. The flea acts as an intermediate host for the tapeworm. When the cat swallows it, the tapeworm eventually takes up residence in the cat’s intestines, where it attaches itself to the lining of the intestines with its hooked teeth.
Cats can also end up with tapeworms if they eat a mouse, rat, rabbit or other small animal infected with tapeworms. Once inside a cat, tapeworms to enormous lengths: up to 11 inches (30 centimeters).
Tapeworms are segmented. Tiny segments of the worm (called proglottids) can break off and pass out of the cat’s body in the stool. These segments are visible to the naked eyes and look like white or yellowish grains of rice.
Coccidiosis is caused by Coccidia (Isospora felis), microscopic single-celled parasites that live in a cat’s intestinal wall. Cats become infected when they ingest an infected cat’s feces, or soil that has been contaminated with feces. Coccidia causes severe diarrhea, which can be serious in young kittens.
Giardia infection, called giardiasis, is caused by tiny single-celled protozoan parasites (Giardia duodenalis) that live in the intestines and cause diarrhea. Kittens are most at risk, along with senior cats, immunocompromised cats and cats that are ill. Cats become infected with Giardia if they ingest the feces of another infected cat. It’s possible that cats can pass Giardia infection to humans.
Symptoms Of Cat Worms
You may see no symptoms that your cat has intestinal parasites, even if the worms are causing problems with your cat’s health.
This is why veterinarians recommend routine fecal exams (called fecal flotation tests) once or twice a year to check the stool for worm eggs or cysts from protoza (single-celled organisms). However, you might notice signs that your cat has worms, especially if your cat is heavily infested.
Symptoms of worms include:
- Bloated belly (potbelly)
- Lethargy (lack of energy)
- Licking or biting under the tail
- Loss of appetite
- Restricted growth
- Scooting (dragging the rear on the floor)
- Weight loss
Treatment & Recovery
Treatment for intestinal parasites is deworming medication (called an anthelmintic) to kill the worms. Although some dewormer are available over the counter without a prescription, different deworming medications kill different worms, so it’s important to find out what type of worms your cat has before attempting to use a dewormer. Additionally, some parasites require prescription medications only available from your vet.
Read More: Best Cat Dewormers
To find out what type of worms your cat has, your veterinarian will conduct a fecal exam (fecal flotation test) to look for signs of worms.
After collecting a sample of your cat’s stool, the veterinarian will examine it under a microscope. The vet is not searching for adult works, but instead is looking for the presence of worm eggs,
cysts or oocysts. Once these have been found, the vet can identify which worms are infecting your cat.
Cats can be infected with more than one type of intestinal parasite at the same time. Sometimes, the same medication will kill all the parasites; other times, your cat might need more than one deworming medication.
If you have other cats in the home, your veterinarian might recommend that you deworm all the cats in the house.
If your cat has tapeworms, the treatment is two-part. First, your veterinarian will prescribe a deworming medication to kill the tapeworms your cat has. Second, your cat and your home should be treated for fleas. Flea infestation and tapeworms go hand in hand since cats get tapeworms by ingesting a flea.
If the cat has fleas or if you have fleas or flea eggs in your home, the cat will continue to become re-infected with tapeworms.
Your veterinarian can recommend an oral or topical flea control product to kill the fleas on the cat. Additionally, you should treat your home and yard for fleas, either using a commercially available flea product or by consulting with a professional exterminator.
Preventing Cat Worms
When it comes to intestinal parasites, prevention is the best medicine. Certain monthly flea, tick and heartworm preventives also protect your cat against certain intestinal parasites (commonly roundworms and hookworms). Talk to your veterinarian about the best parasite prevention for your cat.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I get worms from my cat?
Cats can pass certain intestinal parasites to humans, including roundworms, hookworms and Giardia. Although people can technically get tapeworms, it is unusual since the person would have to ingest a flea infected with tapeworm. Due to the risk of transmission to humans, it’s important to have your cat tested for worms once or twice a year, and to use a year-round parasite preventive product.
How does an indoor cat get worms?
Although indoor cats are at lower risk of contracting intestinal parasites, cats can still become infected if they encounter rodents (mice and rats) that harbor the parasites, or if the cat swallows a flea while self-grooming (which can transmit tapeworms).
Can I treat my cat’s worms at home?
Although some dewormers are sold over the counter without a prescription, different medications kill different types of worms. Because you must find out what type of worms your cat has before attempting to use a dewormer, make a visit to your veterinarian for a fecal test. Your veterinarian can then recommend the proper dewormer.