Tapeworms in Cats: Types, Symptoms and Treatments

Without proper attention, tapeworms can become a serious health problem for cats and their owners. Find out in the following content the importance of keeping these parasites out of the house!
Tapeworms in Cats: Types, Symptoms and Treatments
Sebastian Ramirez Ocampo

Written and verified by the veterinarian and zootechnician Sebastian Ramirez Ocampo.

Last update: 01 July, 2023

Tapeworms in cats are a major concern for the welfare of small felines. The infection caused by these worms brings severe vomiting and diarrhea, as well as marked dehydration and progressive malnutrition.

Likewise, as they’re considered zoonotic parasites, there’s a risk of direct transmission from the pet to its owner. If you have any questions about the types of tapeworms that exist, the symptoms they create, and the best strategies to fight them, then you’re in the right article! Don’t miss the information we’re going to share with you!

What are tapeworms in cats like?

Tapeworms belong to the class of cestodes, also known as flatworms. Their anatomical composition is quite simple. Their body – which has no mouth, intestine or body cavities – is made up of the following parts:

  • Head or scolex: This is provided with small villi or suckers, with which they adhere to the intestinal wall of their hosts.
  • Neck: This is a non-segmented area, which has the ability to regenerate.
  • Series of segments or proglottids: These contain the eggs that are necessary for reproduction.

According to an article reviewed in The Veterinary Clinics of North America, tapeworms are hermaphrodite animals, since both male and female reproductive organs are found in their proglottids.

Consequently, one individual doesn’t need another to fertilize its eggs.

On the other hand, as this same document mentions, their reproductive cycle requires an intermediate host, where the larval form develops. In addition, it also needs a final host, in which it acquires its adult stage and initiates the release of eggs to the outside through the feces of the infected animal.

Types of tapeworms

Three main cestodes causing parasitosis can be identified in cats: Dipylidium caninum, Echinococcus multilocularis and Taenia taeniaeformis.

Dipylidium caninum

As reported in a publication in the journal Parasites & Vectors magazine, this worm has a worldwide distribution. In addition, it’s considered to be the worm that most affects pets. According to the authors, it can range from 10 to 70 centimeters in length (4 to 28 inches).

Its contagion occurs when a cat accidentally ingests fleas infected with tapeworm larvae (the intermediate host). These worms, upon entering the cat’s (the final host) body, travel and adhere to the intestine. In this organ, they reach maturity in 20 days and start their reproductive cycle again.

Dipylidium caninum.
Dipylidium caninum. The body is clearly seen divided into several segments. Credit: Alan R. Walker/Wikimedia Commons.

Echinococcus multilocularis

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Echinococcus multilocularis is a smaller worm, with adults measuring 1 to 4 millimeters in length. Among its intermediate hosts are cows, pigs and sheep, while its final hosts are dogs, cats, and wild foxes.

Infection occurs when animals ingest tapeworm eggs present in foodstuffs such as meat and contaminated water.

Furthermore, as stated in an article in the magazine Veterinary Parasitology, they reach sexual maturity in the intestine 28 days post-infection. However, the larvae also lodge in the liver forming tumor-like cysts in what is known as alveolar echinococcosis.

Taenia taeniaeformis

Also known as the “cat tapeworm”. According to the book The Cat: Clinical Medicine and Management, it’s one of the most prevalent worms in felines worldwide. According to its authors, cats become infected by consuming the larvae present in infected rodents, which act as intermediate hosts. They reach adulthood in the intestine and can measure up to 60 centimeters (24 inches) in length.

Are tapeworms in cats contagious to humans?

The research entitled Dogs, cats, parasites, and humans in Brazil: opening the black box explains that cestodes such as Dipylidium caninum have a high zoonotic potential, so they can be transmitted from animals to humans.

In the case of this tapeworm, people can become infected by accidentally ingesting fleas containing the cestode larvae.

This is also the case when handling feces from a contaminated animal and not washing your hands properly.

Echinococcus multilocularis can also cause zoonoses, and it’s estimated that it affects more than 18,000 people per year worldwide, especially in Europe and Asia. This is according to a study published in the journal Parasite.

However, as this research reports, although cats are definitive hosts of the parasite, they don’t play a major role in the life cycle and transmission of this worm to humans. However, there is still a small risk of infection.

What are the symptoms?

When parasite loads are mild, infected felines usually show an asymptomatic infection, i.e. no marked symptoms are observed. However, in more severe cases, the following clinical signs can be distinguished:

  • Metabolic disorders: Since tapeworms feed on nutrients from their host, infected cats show malnutrition, weight loss, dehydration, poor general appearance, and growth problems.
  • Vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain: These occur as a consequence of inflammation and alterations in the correct functioning of the intestine.
  • Intestinal obstruction: Can manifest itself – acutely – due to a high parasite load of Taenia taenia taeniaeformis and compromise the patient’s life.
  • Parasite segments in the anus: Especially in Dipylidium caninum infections, proglottids can be observed in the perianal area and in the feces of the infected cat. They look like small grains of rice.
  • Anal irritation and itching: Caused by the excretion of the parasite segments. It’s common to see infected felines dragging their tails on the floor or constantly licking themselves.
A cat washing itself.
Infected cats often manifest excessive licking of the perianal area. Credit: iStockphoto.

How do you know if your cat has tapeworms?

The diagnosis should be made by a trained professional. Therefore, it’s important that, when you observe any of these symptoms, you go as soon as possible to a veterinarian. They will be in charge of evaluating the functional and nutritional status of your pet, in addition to identifying the cestode that’s causing the parasitosis.

It’s true that a sample of your feline’s fecal matter is required, since, as menrioned to in a study in the magazine Parasites & Vectors, the diagnosis is based on observing and counting tapeworm eggs in the feces with techniques such as flotation and McMaster counting.

How to combat tapeworms in cats?

According to your cat’s condition, it’ll be necessary to start the treatment with a stabilization and rehydration of their body with intravenous fluids.

At a more specific level, to eradicate tapeworms, antiparasitic drugs are used – such as praziquantel and epsiprantel –which have high efficacy against cestode parasites.

On the other hand, according to two studies published in the journal Parasite, there are commercial products that combine afoxolaner, eprinomectin and praziquantel, with successful results in the treatment of infections by Dipylidium caninum, and Echinococcus multilocularis in cats.

Finally, in cases of intestinal obstruction caused by Taenia taeniaeformis, surgery is necessary to remove the adult forms of the parasite lodged in the intestine.

The best treatment is prevention

As with most diseases affecting cats, prevention methods are far more effective than treatment itself. Using strategies such as deworming your pet – every 3 months, with oral medications – or flea control – with imidacloprid/flumethrine collars or pipettes – will prevent the appearance of tapeworms in cats.

In addition, as you could observe, rodents act as intermediate hosts for some of these cestodes. For this reason, controlling the access of felines to the outside, so that they don’t eat them, is key in their prevention. Also, remember that these worms can infect you, so keeping them away from your home will benefit you and your pet.

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The contents of My Animals are written for informational purposes. They can't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment from a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.