Tapeworms and fleas usually go hand in hand because fleas (when accidently swallowed during self-grooming) are the most common source of these intestinal worm infections. Cats can also get tapeworms from ingesting rodents. While frightening when discovered wiggling out of a cat’s anus, they fortunately don’t cause much harm. That’s a good thing because “tapes” are the most difficult worm egg to find with stool (fecal) tests.
Fleas often carry tapeworms so flea control is a must for treating and preventing most tapeworm infections in cats.
Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC)
All About Tapeworms
Tapeworms (cestodes) are a group of similar parasites that can live in the intestines of cats. The main species (spp.) for cats are Taenia spp., Echinococcus spp., Mesocestoides spp, Diphyllobothrium spp., and most importantly Dipylidium caninum.[3,4]
Different types of “tapes” can have different life cycles which can get complicated quickly (e.g., flea host vs. bird host vs. rodent host vs. fish host). The most common tapeworm of cats is D. caninum.[1,2] This tapeworm can be found all across North America, especially in areas where insect hosts (fleas or lice) are present in high density. Taenia spp. and Echinococcus spp. infections come from cats eating live or scavenged rodents.
Dipylidium caninum tapeworms are the most common tapeworms in cats and are found throughout the U.S.; anywhere a cat may be exposed to fleas or lice. This is because cats get infected with these tapeworms by accidentally ingesting the flea or louse during self-grooming.
Routine stool (fecal) testing underestimates how common these tapeworms are in cats. This is because the egg packets (proglottids) aren’t spread evenly in the stool and because the eggs are more difficult to tease out of the stool during laboratory preparation. This means that “false negative” results (meaning that tapeworms are in the cat but the stool test didn’t find them) are more common with tapeworms compared to other worms.
If fleas are discovered on the cat or in the household, veterinarians will often treat for tapeworms even if none were found on the stool test. If a cat has been previously diagnosed with tapeworms, veterinarians may recommend routinely deworming for tapes or switching to a heartworm preventative that includes a monthly tapeworm treatment medication.
While less common, cats can get other types of tapeworms like Taenia spp. and Echinococcus spp. These infections come from cats ingesting live or scavenged rodents.
Tapeworms look like horror-movie monsters, complete with suckers on the head (scolex) and a mouth shaped like a many-pronged grappling hook. They are ribbon-like flatworms that can grow and keep growing to between 15 – 70cm in length (that’s up to 2 feet!). That can be a long worm in the intestinal tract, which is where they live in the cat so you won’t (hopefully) ever see them at full-size.
Adult tapeworms are white or cream in color, and made up of seemingly countless, flat segments (called proglottids) with each packed full of up to 20 eggs. Tapeworms regularly drop these proglottid egg packets for passage with the cat’s stool. What may seem crazy is that these packets of eggs (resembling grains of rice) can actually wiggle on their own and “crawl” out of the cat’s anus onto the fur under their tail or even onto the cat’s bedding![1,2,4]
The eggs within the proglottids are microscopic and only detectable by examining a stool (fecal) sample under a microscope (ClueJay Cat Stool Test Level 1, 2, or 3). If found, it’s a giveaway that adult tapeworms have infected the cat and treatment is needed.
Usually none. Most cats with a tapeworm infection will not get sick or lose weight from the worm burden. The rare exception can be in kittens, where large numbers of tapeworms can slow the growth of the kitten or cause a life-threatening intestinal blockage. Most of the time the only “symptom” is seeing the tapeworm egg packets (proglottids) wiggling out of the cat’s anus or on the fur around the anus and under the tail. They can also be found (looking like small grains of rice) on the cat’s bedding. Rarely an entire adult tapeworm will be passed in the stool or vomited if it migrated to the stomach.
Licking or biting under the tail or scooting (dragging the hind end across the ground or carpet) are symptoms often attributed to tapeworms, however these are symptoms more likely from other problems like blocked anal glands (pouches), skin infection/irritation, or flea infestation, and should be checked by a veterinarian.[1,5]
If your cat is acting sick, please contact a veterinarian right away.
Cats get D.caninum tapeworms by ingesting an insect host (flea or louse) that is harboring tapeworm larvae within their body.[4,5] Most commonly in pet cats, the host is an adult flea which the cat accidently swallowed while self-grooming. The tapeworm larvae escape the swallowed flea and grow into worms in the cat’s intestines. Good flea control for all pets in the household is the best way to prevent cats from getting infected with tapeworms.
Cats get Taenia spp. or Echinococcus spp. tapeworms by ingesting an animal host (rodents, rabbits, or livestock) that is harboring these tapeworm larvae within their body.[4,5] Avoid infection with these tapes by preventing hunting, scavenging, and feeding raw meat/viscera of infected animals.
The D.caninum tapeworm needs both the cat and a flea (or louse) to complete its life cycle. Larval (young) fleas feed on tapeworm egg packets (proglottids) in the environment and ingest the eggs. As these fleas grow into adults, the tapeworm eggs they carry develop into tapeworm larvae. Since cats with fleas are often very itchy, they will lick and chew at their coats and accidently swallow some of the fleas. The tapeworm larvae in the swallowed fleas escape into the digestive tract and use their suckers and “grappling hooks” to attach to the inner lining of the cat’s intestine. Tapeworms have no mouth, rather they absorb nutrients from the food being digested around them. As they mature, tapeworms grow segments of egg packets (proglottids) that will break off and pass in the cat’s stool to be eaten by flea larvae and continue the cycle.
Other species of tapeworms (Taenia spp., Echinococcus spp., Mesocestoides spp, Diphyllobothrium spp.) have life cycles that are similar, but which require a different second host such as a rabbit, rodent, sheep or other ruminant, horse, pig, bird, snake, lizard, or even fish. While our pet cats are unlikely to get tapeworms from eating wild rabbits or rodents or even larger animals, free-range cats do get tapeworms in this way.
People can get tapeworms, but very rarely. People get infected with Dipylidium caninum tapeworms when they accidentally swallow a flea infected with tapeworm larvae. Most reported cases involve children and are easily treated. Robust flea control in the household can reduce the likelihood that a human adult or child swallows a flea and gets a tapeworm infection.
D. caninum is also the most important tapeworm in dogs. They get infected in the same way as cats, from grooming and accidentally ingesting a flea with tapeworm larvae. Remember that fleas jump between cats and dogs in close contact. This is how one cat or dog with tapeworms can spread (through fleas) tapeworms to other cats and dogs in the household or community.
People are more likely to get tapeworm infections (Taenia spp. or Echinococcus spp.) from eating raw or undercooked beef or pork or through travel to certain parts of the world with poor hygiene. As with D.caninum infections, people may not know they have tapeworms because the symptoms are usually mild or nonexistent, with rare exceptions. Since tapeworm eggs shed in the stool of infected dogs or cats can be transmitted to people, treating pets with tapeworms is recommended.
Once a Dipylidium caninum tapeworm infection has been positively identified in your cat’s stool, treatment often includes a combination of deworming medication along with flea treatment and prevention to stop the infection from resurfacing.[2,4,6] Flea control is crucial for all pets (dogs, cats, etc.) in the household because fleas jump between pets. Cats most commonly get tapes from accidentally ingesting a flea during licking/grooming. Less commonly, cats get these tapeworms from ingesting lice.
Veterinarians may recommend deworming your cat for any type of tapeworm detected. For the flea tape (D.caninum), vets may also recommend additional or more advanced flea-control to ensure reinfection does not occur.[2,4,6] Monthly deworming for tapes may be needed for cats that are likely to be re-infected, especially outdoor cats that get infected with Taenia spp. or Echinococcus spp. from hunting rodents.
While ClueJay does not dispense or prescribe medications, there are several tapeworm deworming medications available over-the-counter (OTC) and through veterinarians. The most common drug-based tapeworm treatment is praziquantel which is used to treat D.caninum, Taenia spp., and Echinococcus spp. Praziquantel is present in some heartworm preventatives that can be given monthly to prevent recurring tapeworm infections. Epsiprantel is an alternative treatment for D.caninum and Taenia spp. Fenbendazol is another alternative treatment for D.caninum, although only approved for dogs.
It’s always best to consult with a veterinarian prior to administering any tapeworm medication, even an OTC version, to make sure it will be safe and effective for your pet. Always read the medication administration directions carefully and be on the lookout for potential side effects (like vomiting) when any deworming medication is administered.
Veterinarians recommend stool (fecal) testing kittens 2 to 4 times during their first year of life, and 1 to 2 times each year in adult cats (every 6 to 12 months). Veterinarians often call this stool test a “Fecal O&P”, with the O&P meaning “ova (eggs) and parasites”. It includes special preparations of the stool sample and analysis using a microscope to look for certain types of parasites like tapeworms. This same test is also used to recheck stool samples after treatment. Typically, a recheck stool test is done 2-4 weeks after deworming a cat that was treated for tapes to help confirm that the treatment was effective.
Cats should also be tested if tapeworm egg packets (proglottids) are found on the fur or bedding. Please contact a veterinarian right away if your cat is acting sick.
Some veterinarians still do the Fecal O&P at their practice with trained veterinary technicians. Most however, “refer” or ship their patient’s stool samples to an external animal reference laboratory for preparation (including centrifugation), analysis, and reporting, where the laboratory technicians and testing processes are more specialized. Routine stool testing can detect the presence of tapeworms and distinguish between some types like Dipylidium caninum (flea tape) versus Taenia spp. and Echinococcus spp.
With the simple and convenient ClueJay testing solution from home (ClueJay Cat Stool Test Level 1, 2, or 3), you can directly access this same professional reference lab testing for tapeworms that veterinary professionals use every day. ClueJay uses reference quality stool preparation techniques and centrifugation, along with a highly trained laboratory team to maximize the likelihood of finding tapeworms and their eggs if present in the sample. All three levels of ClueJay cat stool tests search for tapeworms.
Finding tapeworms or tapeworm eggs in your cat’s stool sample likely means your cat is infected with tapeworms and should be treated with a deworming medication. Dipylidium caninum tapeworms are a telltale sign of fleas, so ensure that all pets in the household are getting high quality flea treatment and prevention. Taenia spp. or Echinococcus spp. tapeworms are from ingesting rodents or other animals.
A test result is not the same as a veterinarian’s diagnosis. It’s always best to consult with a veterinarian about your cat’s test results to determine the safest and most effective treatment and prevention plan, and when to do follow-up stool tests.
ClueJay stool tests report tapeworm positive results using a quantitative estimation scale of 1 (1 egg or parasite was seen), 1+ (2 to 4 eggs or parasites were seen), 2+ (5 to 10 eggs or parasites were seen), 3+ (11 to 50 eggs or parasites were seen), or 4+ (>50 eggs or parasites were seen) per (approximately) one gram of stool. This is based on both a naked-eye visual and then a microscopic exam of the stool after special preparation and centrifugation techniques. This scale provides some perspective on the potential burden of worm infection (more eggs likely means more worms in the intestines).
Most veterinarians will recommend rechecking a cat’s stool sample 2-4 weeks after treatment for tapeworms. If you have other dogs or cats in the household, they should be tested as well since tapeworms in one pet can often mean tapeworms in others.
If your cat had a stool O&P (fecal ova and parasite) test and tapeworms were not seen, that is great news. It may mean that you are doing a good job preventing tapeworm infections by regularly deworming your cat or maybe, you and your cat were just lucky! Either way no one wants their cat shedding tapeworm eggs into the home or community environment, putting other pets at risk of infection, your cat at risk of re-infection, or you or your human family at risk of infection. Most veterinarians recommend retesting your adult cat for tapeworms every 6 to 12 months.
Keep in mind that it’s possible for cats to have tapeworms without their eggs being found in the stool test (called a “false negative” result); especially if the infection is mild (very small number of worms) or is recent (tapeworms are still too young to shed eggs). False negative results for tapeworms can also occur because eggs are not always present in every stool sample. The egg “packets” (proglottids) of tapeworms often don’t get evenly distributed in the stool and they are simply more difficult to tease out of the stool (compared to roundworm and hookworm eggs) in the laboratory even when present. Also depending on their lifestyle, cats can remain at risk of tapeworm egg exposure so a negative test result today doesn’t mean it couldn’t be positive later. This explains why regularly testing for tapeworms (1-2 times per year in adult cats; 3-4 times for kittens) is recommended throughout the cat’s life.
- Pets and Parasites, Tapeworms – Cat Owners
- American Kennel Club, Tapeworms in Dogs: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention
- PetMD, Identifying and Treating Tapeworm in Cats
- Companion Animal Parasite Council, Dipylidium Caninum, Taenia spp., Echinococcus spp.
- VCA Hospitals, Tapeworm Infection in Cats
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Parasites – Dipylidium Infection (also known as Dog and Cat Flea Tapeworm)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Parasites – Taeniasis
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