Cat Health

Tapeworm (Cestodes) in Cats – Symptoms and Treatment

What are tapeworms?    Transmission   Symptoms   Diagnosis   Treatment   Prevention

What are tapeworms?

Also known as cestodes, tapeworms are flat, segmented worms which live in the small intestine of cats and other mammals.

Tapeworms have no mouth or digestive tract themselves and must obtain their food source pre-digested, they have a tough outer skin that is capable of withstanding the strong digestive juices. Tapeworms absorb the cat’s pre-disgested food through their porous skin.

There are approximately 5,000 species of tapeworm in the world, each of which has a specific host,  only a small number of tapeworms infect cats.

The two most common tapeworms found in cats are dipylidium caninum and taenia taeniaeformis. Distribution of both dipylidium caninum and taenia taeniaeformis is worldwide. Both species live in the cat for up to three years.

What do tapeworms look like?

tapeworm in cats
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Tapeworms are whitish/cream in colour with a ribbon-like appearance and can grow up to 24 inches (60 cm) in length, they are the second most common type of worm to infect cats (roundworms are the most common).

Tapeworms are hermaphroditic, which means they contain both ovaries and testes and are capable of reproducing on their own. They have a head (scolex), a neck and a segmented body (the segments are known as proglottids and collectively strobila). The head attaches to the wall of the small intestine with hooks and once attached to the intestinal wall the tapeworm begins to produce proglottids.

Each proglottid has its own digestive tract, male and female reproductive organs and are classified as immature, mature and gravid.  Located at the end of the strobila, the gravid proglottid contains a fully mature uterus full of eggs.

Tapeworm life cycle and transmission:

The tapeworm needs two hosts to complete their lifecycle. First is the intermediate host (the flea or a rodent), which passes the larval stage of the tapeworm around, and the final host (your cat), where the larvae develop into an adult tapeworm.

Once the tapeworm reaches maturity, at around 2-3 weeks, gravid proglottids, containing up to 20 eggs, break off and leave the body of the tapeworm via the feces or crawl out of the anus. Proglottids have the appearance of rice grains and are motile (capable of movement). Once outside the body, the proglottids dry out, releasing the eggs (which have the appearance of sesame seeds).

Flea larvae eat the eggs or a rodent accidentally ingests them, and the life cycle begins again.

Cats become infected when they kill and eat an infected rodent with the strobilocercus stage cysts in the liver or by ingesting an infected flea during grooming.

Flea transmission – Dipylidium caninum:

This is the most common tapeworm found in cats and the cat flea is the intermediate host of dipylidium caninum.

Proglottids pass out via the feces or crawl out of the anus and are eaten by flea larvae and once inside the flea larvae, the egg hatches in the intestine and the tapeworm larvae penetrate into the body cavity of the flea where they develop into cysticercoids (containing an immature scolex). The flea larvae develop into an adult flea, which goes about its business of parasitising your pet and sucking blood.

Your cat then ingests the flea during grooming and once inside the stomach, the flea breaks down and the cysticercoid is released. It hooks onto the lining of the small intestinal wall and develops into an adult tapeworm. For each cysticercoid ingested, one tapeworm will develop.

Rodent transmission – Taenia taeniaeformis:

The second most common type of tapeworm in cats. Cats become infected with taenia taeniaeformis via infected rodents containing the larval tapeworm.

Rodents become infected when they eat plant material contaminated with cat feces containing embryonated tapeworm eggs. Once in the small intestine of the rodent, oncospheres (tapeworm embryos) make their way to the rodent’s liver where they develop into the strobilocercus stage (a fluid-filled cyst containing a scolex, segmented body (strobila) and a terminal bladder).

If a cat consumes the liver of a rodent containing a cyst, infection occurs. Once ingested outer portion containing the strobila and bladder are digested, leaving the scolex. This attaches to the wall of the small intestinal wall and develops into an adult tapeworm.  Once again, when the tapeworm reaches maturity, proglottids exit the cat via the feces or anus, dry out and release their eggs which are consumed by a rodent.

For each strobilocercus ingested by the cat, one tapeworm will develop.

Tapeworm symptoms:

Tapeworm in cats

Most tapeworm infections in cats are asymptomatic.

  • Cat owners only become aware of infection when they notice rice like segments (proglottids) around the cat’s anus, the fur around the tail, in his feces and in the environment, such as bedding.
  • Once outside the body, the proglottid dries out, revealing the eggs, which look like sesame seeds.
  • It is also possible in some cases for the tapeworm to release its attachment to the small intestinal wall and move to the stomach, the cat may then vomit up the tapeworm.

Tapeworm proglottids

Heavy infestations may produce symptoms including:

  • Biting or licking their anal area or scooting their hindquarters along the floor.
  • The fur may also take on a poor appearance.
  • Weight loss due to the tapeworm competing for nutrients with the cat.
  • Vomiting – The tapeworm can unattach from the small intestine which the cat vomits back up.
  • A heavy infestation can cause an intestinal obstruction with symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, swollen and painful abdomen, hunched over appearance.

Diagnosis:

Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination of your cat and may notice tapeworm segments around the anus or in the feces.

The presence of proglottids or tapeworm eggs in a fecal flotation can confirm diagnosis.

Are tapeworms dangerous to cats?

Generally, no, tapeworms aren’t harmful to cats, however, as tapeworms take nutrients from the cat a heavy infestation can cause your cat to become nutritionally deprived and lose weight.

There has been one published case of a barn cat developing an intestinal obstruction due to a tapeworm infection.

Treatment:

Your veterinarian will be able to provide you with an effective deworming medication which will kill the tapeworm(s). These may be in tablet, injection or spot-on form.

Common tapeworm medications include:

Drontal (Praziquantel and Pyrantel)

Treats: Tapeworm, roundworm, and hookworm.

Kittens and lactating females: 6 weeks old and can use on pregnant and lactating females.

Milbemax (Praziquantel and Oxime)

Treats: Roundworm, hookworm, and tapeworm.

Kittens and lactating females: 6 weeks and over 500g and can use on pregnant and lactating females.

ParaGard (Praziquantel, Oxibendazole)

Treats: Tapeworm, roundworm, and hookworm.

Kittens and lactating females: 2 weeks old. There are no studies for pregnant or lactating females.

Popantel (Praziquantel)

Treats: Tapeworm, roundworm, hookworm, and whipworm.

Kittens and lactating females: Can use on pregnant and lactating cats and kittens over 6 weeks.

Panacur (Fenbendazole)

Treats: Tapeworm (Taenia taeniaeformis species), roundworm, hookworm, whipworm, lungworm, and giardia. Does not treat Dipylidium caninum tapeworm.

Kittens and lactating females: Kittens over 2 weeks and can use on pregnant and lactating females.

Profender (Praziquantel and Emodepside)

Treats: Roundworm, hookworm, tapeworm, and lungworm.

Kittens and lactating females: 8 weeks and over 500g and can use on pregnant and lactating cats.

Purina Total Care (Pyrantel embolate and Niclosamide)

Treats: Roundworm, hookworm, and tapeworm.

Kittens and lactating females: 6 weeks old and can use on pregnant and lactating cats.

Your cat and the environment will need to be treated for fleas at the same time, wash all bedding in hot water and treat all pets in the home.

Can I catch tapeworms from my cat?

Yes and no. You cannot catch tapeworm directly from your cat, but if your cat has fleas it is possible to catch tapeworm by accidentally swallowing a flea carrying the tapeworm cysticercoid. Humans are most likely to become infected with tapeworms from eating undercooked meat.

Pinworms are the most common parasitic worm to infect humans and transmission occurs from human/human and via objects such as bedding, cats do not spread these worms.

Tapeworm prevention:

Stringent flea control is essential in preventing tapeworm in cats, if you treat your cat for tapeworm but don’t address the problem of fleas, your cat will become re-infected with tapeworm quickly. Remember that most of the flea life cycle is spent in the environment and not on the cat, you must treat the house and outdoors for fleas at the same time as you treat your cat.

Prevent hunting in cats by keeping them indoors or in a cat enclosure.

Treat cats regularly for fleas and worms, below is the schedule for worming kittens and cats:

  • Every 2 weeks from 2 weeks of age until the kitten is 12 weeks old.
  • Monthly from 12 weeks of age until 6 months.
  • Every three months from 6 months.

*Some worming treatment schedules may vary, always follow the instructions on the pack.