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Worms in Cats: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Worms in Cats: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Caring for the health and well-being of your feline family member is one of the most important parts of pet parenthood.
 
Cat parents need to stay up to date with vaccination schedules, learn to read a cat’s cues and body language, and make sure their cats stay clean and well-groomed. Additionally, pet parents need to prevent parasitic infections.
 
Gastrointestinal parasites, or worms, in cats are a common problem for our feline friends, and cat parents should understand how these parasites infect cats, along with prevention and treatment. 

How do cats get worms?

In order to understand how cats get worms, it’s important to know the types of worms that generally infect cats.
 
The most common worms in cats, says Dr. Travis Arndt, director of the Animal Medical Center of Mid-America, are:

  • Tapeworms
  • Hookworms
  • Roundworms

Tapeworms

Tapeworms have long, flat bodies that comprise small, white-colored segments. Cats usually contract tapeworms from ingesting a flea, says Arndt. This can happen during a cat’s regular grooming and cleaning routine or by eating a rodent with fleas.
 
“The tapeworm hatches when the flea is in the cat’s stomach,” he adds. “If your cat has tapeworms, you may see tiny white worms near their bottom and on the cat’s tail that resemble a grain of rice.”

Hookworms

Hookworms attach to the lining of a cat’s intestinal tract. Hookworm eggs move through a cat’s digestive tract and are excreted through cat feces. These eggs then develop into larvae. “Because the larvae live in the soil,” says Arndt, “they can be ingested during grooming or they can enter your cat through the bottom of their feet.”
 
Dr. Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, says that adult hookworms are less than a half-inch long and are slender and thread-like, making them difficult to see.
 
“Lesions where the larvae have penetrated the skin may be seen on the paws,” he adds. Because of the risk of infection, it is typically recommended that you keep your cat inside to avoid any unnecessary exposure.

Dr. Whitney Miller, Director of Veterinary Medicine for Petco, adds that heavy hookworm infestations can be life threatening due to secondary anemia, especially in kittens, so prevention and veterinary checks are essential.

Roundworms

Roundworms are common in cats, and Kornreich explains that kittens often become infected with roundworms through ingesting their mother’s milk. Adult roundworms are 3 to 5 inches long and are usually visible in a cat’s feces. Cats can also contract roundworms by ingesting roundworm eggs or eating rodents with larvae present in their tissues.

Similar to hookworms, roundworms can not only pose a threat to your cat, but to you as well. Since both types of worms are zoonotic, they can infect humans as well as your pets.

Can all cats get worms?

Although all cats can become infected with worms, there are certain subgroups that may be more susceptible, says Kornreich. These include very young kittens who can contract worms through a mother’s milk, outdoor cats who regularly come in contact with rodents, cats that live in crowded conditions and cats that life with dogs or other animals that can increase their risk of exposure.
 
Arndt also explains that cats can become infected if pet parents don’t keep up with litter box maintenance and take precautions when adding a new cat to the home.
 
“Oftentimes, cats will become infected with worms when the family adds a new kitten to the household,” he says. “If the new kitten has roundworms or hookworms, parasites are transmitted through the shared use of the litter box.”

Because of the range of exposure risks to both pets and people, Miller strongly recommends that all cats be on year round prevention, for both your cat's health and because of risks to human health.

Pet prescriptions available to order at Petco

Symptoms of worms in cats

All of these worms affect the digestive and intestinal tract in cats. Some are visible in a cat’s feces or around a cat’s tail, and cat parents should be on the lookout for visible signs of worms.
 
Other symptoms of worms in cats include:

  • Bloated stomach
  • Weight loss
  • Coarse fur
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy
  • Dragging their bottoms on the ground

If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your veterinarian and make an appointment to have your cat examined.

How to treat worms in cats

cat in vet office

Worms in cats are often treated with prescription medication that is available through your veterinarian and administered according to the type of worms diagnosed. However, there are also several over the counter medications and dewormers available which are often recommended by veterinarians. 
 
“Dewormers are usually a liquid oral medication, though your veterinarian may recommend a small pill, injection or topical medicine applied directly on your cat’s skin,” says Arndt. 
 
Always follow your veterinarian’s instructions when administering medication to your cat.

How to prevent worms in cats

If your cat already has contracted worms, veterinary diagnosis and a treatment plan are the only way to deworm your cat. But if you want to prevent your cat from getting worms, there are some guidelines to follow.
 
Kornreich says that pet parents should practice good sanitation including cleaning litter boxes on a daily basis and disinfecting them weekly, avoiding overcrowding of cats and litter boxes, and asking your veterinarian to perform regular stool analysis as part of your cat’s routine wellness exams.
 
Additionally, there are prescription and over the counter preventive worm medications that keep cats protected. “Year-round preventative is the best way to protect your cat from worms,” says Arndt. “Even cats that stay inside are at risk of getting worms. Cat parents should talk with their veterinarian each visit about the best products to keep cats protected.”