Sylvester’s mom called in a panic. Her adorable black and white kitten had some strange-looking material stuck in the hair under his tail. She described it as some hard, light tan granules. When we asked her if the pieces looked like sesame seeds, she responded, “Yes.” She was a new cat owner and this was her first experience observing tapeworm segments.

We advised her not to worry, that what she was describing sounded like dried tapeworm segments and there were a couple of very safe and effective products with which to treat Sylvester. She was surprised to find out that even though her kitten had been treated for worms before she got him, he had worms. Sylvester was an indoor kitten and ate a regular premium diet.

Sylvester had been adopted through a rescue group, and he had been exposed to fleas prior to going to his new home. Although he had been treated for fleas by his foster owner, his treatments had been several months earlier. The most common way for cats to develop tapeworms is by ingesting fleas when they groom themselves. We suspected that this was how Sylvester got his tapeworms.

Tapeworms are frequently found in cats, especially in patients that have had fleas. The tapeworm, like other intestinal worms, has a life cycle that requires an intermediate host to develop into an infectious parasite. Dipylidium caninum is the name of the most common tapeworm found in cats. The pieces of tapeworm that pass in the feces or crawl out of the anus are called proglottids. Eggs are released from these segments into the environment. Fleas ingest the eggs, which develop into a larvae within the flea. When a cat ingests a flea carrying a tapeworm larvae, the larvae will develop into a mature worm in about a month. The head of the adult worms attaches to the lining of the intestines and the worm body, made up of proglottids, can become several inches long. As the worm matures, the proglottids are released, and the cycle begins again.

Cats do not transmit tapeworms to humans. A person would have to eat a flea carrying a tapeworm larvae to become infected.

There is another genus of tapeworms called Taenia that are carried by birds, rodents and reptiles. Cats can become infected with these tapeworms if they hunt and eat prey.

Fortunately, tapeworms don’t make cats sick and don’t cause weight loss. Sometimes they will cause mild anal irritation and cats will lick more under their tails. Tapeworms are most commonly diagnosed when owners observe live worms, which look like wiggly grains of rice on the feces, or when they see the dried segments in the bedding or on the pet. It is not common to see tapeworm eggs when fecal testing cats in a veterinary clinic.

Other worms that can infect cats are roundworms, hookworms and whipworms. These worms are more often found in kittens and cause diarrhea, weight loss and gastrointestinal upset. Diagnosis of these worms is made when eggs are found during fecal testing at your vet clinic. Cats with heavy worm infestations can vomit worms or pass them in their stools.

Worm treatment is easy, and cats tolerate the drugs that are used very well. There are a variety of medications; dosing is based on your kitten or cat’s weight and the type of worm(s) present. A couple of years ago a topical, spot-on product called Profender was developed that is effective against feline GI-tract worms including tapeworms. This product does not kill fleas but is applied similarly to spot-on flea products and is available through your veterinarian. I think it is the easiest treatment to use.

Thinking about intestinal worms is unpleasant, but being aware of them is an important part of cat ownership. All kittens should have fecal testing for parasites. They should be treated for worms at least twice, two weeks apart, and more frequently if reinfestation with worms is likely. Indoor living, flea control and good litter box hygiene reduce the risk of worms. Cats that get fleas, eat raw meat, hunt or go outside should be treated for worms at least twice a year, as well as in between if any signs of worms are seen. Ask your veterinarian if you have more questions about gastrointestinal worms.

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