Diagnosing Tapeworms in Cats

Tapeworms in cats are intestinal parasites that attach themselves to the intestinal wall. They feed by absorbing the nutrients in your cat's food through their skin. As adults, tapeworms may grow to be several inches in length. Their bodies grow in segments, and as they mature, these segments break off and pass out of the digestive tract, where they can often be seen as small, white rice-like pieces clinging to the area around the anus.

How Cats Get Tapeworms

Tapeworms are common in cats who have been exposed to fleas, because fleas are an intermediate host for tapeworms. This means that tapeworms cannot complete their life cycle without flea larvae, who ingest tapeworms eggs. The flea then reaches adulthood and begins to feed on its own host, the cat. When the cat chews or bites at fleas, he may accidentally swallow one, thereby ingesting the tapeworm eggs.

Once inside your cat's digestive tract, the tapeworm egg hatches and the tapeworm attaches itself to the wall of your cat's intestine via its hook-like teeth. There, it begins to feed and reaches adulthood.

Symptoms of Tapeworms

Tapeworms don't present a great health risk to most cats, though if the infestation is severe enough, tapeworms can cause malnutrition and weight loss. Most owners diagnose tapeworms at home when they notice small, white rice-like tapeworm segments, known as proglottids, clinging to the area around the cat's anus. Proglottids may also be present in feces. Often, they will still be moving then they emerge from the cat's body.

Cats with tapeworms may also attempt to scratch themselves by dragging or scooting their butts along the floor. If a tapeworm becomes detached from the intestinal wall and makes its way into the stomach, your cat may vomit it up.

Diagnosing Tapeworms in Cats

Most owners diagnose tapeworms in cats without veterinary intervention. The most common symptom is the appearance of proglottids, or tapeworm segments, on the cat's anal area and in the feces. These proglottids may contain packets of up to 20 tapeworm eggs.

Tapeworms can sometimes be difficult to diagnose, however, as symptoms like vomiting may occur without the presence of proglottids on the anus or in the feces. Furthermore, proglottids may not appear in all stool samples. If you notice small, white, rice-like proglottids in your cat's feces, contact your vet.

Treating and Preventing Cat Tapeworm

Tapeworm treatment is effective and fairly straightforward. Your vet will administer deworming medication, either in the form of a tablet or an injection. Deworming medication kills the tapeworms, and they are usually digested, so you may not see them appear in your cat's feces. Some medications carry side effects, like vomiting and diarrhea, but these are rare and not usually serious.

You can prevent tapeworm infection through flea control. A monthly, topical flea treatment such as Frontline or Advantage are the best option for adequate flea control, especially for outdoor cats who might pick up fleas from the soil. Without strict flea control, tapeworm infestation will recur repeatedly, especially in environments with high flea populations.