Tapeworms in Cats: Causes, Symptoms & Cure

Nobody wants to think about worms, let alone tapeworms—probably the worst of the bunch. But if your cat has worms, how can you spot their symptoms, and how can you get rid of them?

How do cats catch tapeworms, and are they serious? Cats catch Dipylidium caninum tapeworms from infested fleas. The flea larvae eat tapeworm eggs from infested feces. If your cat ingests the flea containing an egg while grooming, the egg will hatch and grow into an adult tapeworm. This adult can self-fertilize and produce more eggs, beginning the cycle again. Signs your cat has a tapeworm include weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea and small progottid tapeworm sections in your cat’s feces and vomit, or around its anus. Treatment is with cat dewormer tablets (anthelmintics) and is almost always effective. Prognosis is good, although left untreated, tapeworms can kill (especially kittens).

The guide below addresses everything you need to know about your cat’s tapeworms: how they spread (and whether people can catch cat tapeworms), what symptoms they cause, how to get rid of them, and what happens if you don’t.

How Do Cats Get Tapeworms?

The way in which cats catch tapeworms is actually very convoluted. It’s not as simple as your cat coming into contact with infested stool.

But before we address how cats catch tapeworms, we should probably define what tapeworms actually are.

What Are Tapeworms?

Tapeworms are long, thin, and live in your cat’s gut.

Tapeworms are a class of parasitic worms. A class is a large grouping of animals, much bigger than a genus or a family. There are around 6,000 species that have been described, but there’s only one that regularly infests cats: Dipylidium caninum, also known as the flea tapeworm, double-pored tapeworm, or cucumber tapeworm.

All tapeworms are roughly the same. They’re much longer than they are wide, reaching about 30cm/11in in maximum length. The longer they go untreated, the bigger they become. They have segmented bodies like all worms; tapeworms can have between 1000 and 2000 segments in total. These segments are shed from the tail end, which is how the tapeworm reproduces.

Where Do Cats Catch Tapeworms From?

The first stage of the process is for a flea larva to swallow a tapeworm egg. Flea larvae don’t feed on blood like adult fleas do; rather, they eat whatever organic matter they can find, from food particles to dead skin and other dead insects. Sometimes, they can swallow tapeworm eggs by accident. The egg will develop inside the flea, as the flea grows into an adult.

You may be thinking, then, that the tapeworm gets into your cat’s body when the flea feeds—but that’s not true either. When the flea bites and causes a raised, itchy lump, the cat will bite and scratch at it. If this tapeworm-egg-infested flea is unlucky enough to get caught and eaten, it will make its way into your cat’s digestive tract like anything else. But as the flea is digested, the egg comes free, and can hatch. The tapeworm then anchors itself to the intestinal lining with special suckers and hooks on its head. Once attached, it will feed on the food in your cat’s gut, stealing some of its nutrients to help itself grow. It takes about a month for this tapeworm to reach full maturity.

The tapeworm can then create and release its own eggs by mating with itself, because yes, tapeworms are hermaphroditic! They reproduce in an entirely unique way. The tapeworm body is made up of many sections, as you likely already knew. Each section is called a proglottid. Each proglottid contains a fully-functioning reproductive system complete with ovaries/eggs and sperm, meaning that it can fertilize itself. These proglottids are shed one by one by the tapeworm, and continually replaced with new growth, like a fingernail. If a flea larva eats a fertilized egg from inside a proglottid, the beautiful cycly can begin again!

How Serious Is Tapeworms in Cats?

Tapeworms are not typically a serious health issue to your cat. Many cats have them, and their owners are entirely unaware of the problem.

However, left untreated, tapeworms can become serious. That’s because they steal the nutrients that your cat needs to thrive. A cat with a tapeworm will lose some of the nutritional value of its food, both in terms of caloric energy and its vitamin/mineral content. This can lead to slow, difficult-to-notice weight loss, and nutritional deficiencies.

But can tapeworms kill a cat? The effects can, indeed, be fatal—but only in select cases. All cases of tapeworm can be identified and treated before they get too serious. But if for whatever reason you choose not to treat it, the tapeworm can become bigger and bigger. The bigger it gets, the more nutrients it steals from your cat’s digestive system; the weight loss and nutritional deficiency described above can gradually kill your cat.

The effect is especially profound in a kitten, for several reasons. One is that kittens need all the nutrients they can get to grow. But besides that, kittens are small, and the tapeworms that affect them are the same size as those that infest adult cats. As such, the effect on a kitten is much more severe.

Can Humans Get Tapeworms from Cats?

cat litter
You won’t catch tapeworms, even on physical contact with your cat’s feces. The only way to catch them is to ingest a flea larva/flea that has eaten tapeworm eggs.

It is possible for tapeworms to pass from cats to people, although it is unlikely.

Tapeworms aren’t species-specific, but they do have certain species that they prefer infesting over others. The kind that infest cats (Dipylidium caninum) are most common in dogs, but can infest a cat or a person’s gut too. It doesn’t matter than cats and people have different diets; the tapeworm won’t mind.

Plus, if your cat was able to catch a tapeworm, then all of the conditions for you to catch a tapeworm are present too. There will be tapeworm eggs in your cat’s feces. The fleas that your cat caught the infestation from will likely still be around, and could bite you and live in your bed or clothing.

Despite all that, though, it’s highly unlikely that you will catch tapeworms from your cat. That’s because you would have to eat an adult flea with a tapeworm egg inside it. You are, of course, probably not going to do that!

Tapeworms in Cats Symptoms

Tapeworms aren’t as easy to diagnose as other cat health issues. Take fleas, for example: you can physically see these, and their feces, in your cat’s fur. Your cat’s behavior will change, in that it will groom itself more. It could even develop small bald patches (alopecia). But tapeworms don’t cause any such obvious symptoms: your pet’s behavior likely won’t change noticeably, nor will its appearance.

So, what are the symptoms of tapeworms in cats? How can you diagnose them?

Digestive Upset

Tapeworms can cause digestive problems for your cat. In real terms, this means diarrhea and vomiting. These occur because the gut/stomach is inflammed. While it’s not possible for your cat’s body to kill the tapeworm on its own, it does notice that the tapeworm is there, and the area that it is attached to the intestinal wall can become irritated. Your cat’s gut will try both diarrhea and vomiting as methods of dislodging and getting rid of the tapeworm, but tapeworms have tiny hooks they attach to the intestinal wall with. They’re therefore unlikely to work. Your cat may also experience gas.

Your cat may not experience any digestive upset at all during an infestation, however. And if it does, vomiting and diarrhea can be signs of many health issues, not just tapeworms. You therefore shouldn’t rely solely on these symptoms as a diagnosis.

Proglottids in Vomit or Feces

cat throwing up
It may not be pleasant to inspect your cat’s vomit, but you may notice signs of tapeworms if you do.

What does inform owners of tapeworms, however, is the presence of proglottids in feces. This is how most kinds of worm are first diagnosed.

Proglottids, as stated above, are small segments of tapeworm that contain both eggs and sperm. The tapeworm continually grows more and more, and releases them into the cat’s stool, so that it can reproduce. When they emerge, they are the shape and color of a grain of white rice, except a lot bigger at about half an inch long. In equal parts disturbing and amazing, these individual proglottids can move around on their own.

These can then appear in your cat’s feces. They can be connected like a long worm, or in individual segments like many tiny worms. They gradually dry out and become much smaller, and darker in color. At this point, they break open, revealing the eggs inside. Each proglottid can contain 20 fully fertilized eggs, ready to be ingested by flea larvae.

Your cat can also bring up a tapeworm in its vomit. This can occur when the tapeworm releases its latch in the intestine and migrates to the stomach. When this occurs, the cat may bring up the entire tapeworm.

Proglottids Around Your Cat’s Anus

Sometimes, the proglottids don’t leave your cat’s rectum easily. If your cat hasn’t gone to the toilet for a while, then the proglottids in your cat’s feces may leave through the anus of their own accord. You can see them in and around the anus when this happens. They look the same as the proglottids you can see in your cat’s feces.

A symptom that occurs alongside this one is for your cat to scoot its bum along the floor, in much the same way as dogs do when they have worms. Your cat is trying to relieve the intense itching feeling caused by the worms. This behavior is much more common in dogs than it is in cats, however.

Gradual Weight Loss

Tapeworms cause weight loss because they eat some of the nutrients in your cat’s food.

Unfortunately, this symptom is very difficult to notice. That’s because it’s a gradual change rather than a sudden decline. The tapeworm doesn’t eat all of your cat’s food’s nutrients, only a small percentage. As such, it’s akin to feeding your cat, say, 5% less per day. This would not result in dramatic weight loss.

You would notice this if you were regularly weighing your cat. This is an easy way to monitor your cat’s overall health, because weight loss is a sign of many problems, not just tapeworms. But if you aren’t already doing so, you won’t have a healthy reference weight to compare to, so there’s no point.

Eating More Than Usual (Why Is My Cat Always Hungry?)

You can contrast this weight loss, if you notice it, with your cat’s increased appetite. Your cat’s body will tell it that it hasn’t eaten enough; in a sense it has, since it has eaten the normal amount of food, but in a sense it hasn’t since the tapeworm has stolen a proportion of the nutrients. Your cat may therefore be eating more than it did before. This behavior can manifest itself in more begging for food than usual, too, which is definitely something you’ll notice.

How to Get Rid of Tapeworms in Cats

You should treat your cat’s tapeworm issue for the sake of its health. Plus, if you have other pets, then there’s a good chance that they will catch worms from your infested cat. Fortunately, tapeworms are relatively easy to treat.

Diagnosing Tapeworm Infection in Cats

No matter what health problem your cat is experiencing, you should talk to a vet. They can both try to diagnose the issue, and recommend what you can do to fix it. This is important, because if you misdiagnose the problem, you could treat it the wrong way.

It can be difficult for a vet to diagnose tapeworms without your help. That’s because vets typically identify worms by performing tests to search for eggs. But these tests can’t always find proglottids, which, remember, haven’t dried and ruptured to reveal their eggs yet. As such, your vet may ask you to check your cat’s stools when fresh to identify the proglottids moving around.

How to Prevent Tapeworms in Cats

Often, preventing a health issue is easier than curing it. In this case, while getting rid of tapeworms is surprisingly easy, it’s still best to prevent the issue entirely for the sake of your cat’s health.

One way of preventing tapeworms is to get rid of their intermediate hosts—fleas. With no fleas present, a tapeworm’s eggs cannot be relayed into another cat, because that’s how the tapeworm’s life cycle goes. Let’s say that you raise a kitten in an environment where it’s guaranteed that there are no fleas; even if there are hundreds and hundreds of tapeworm eggs in that environment, there’s no way for them to get into your cat’s gut and hatch into adults. There is no other way.

As such, effective flea control is necessary. This can be achieved with spot-on treatments, flea shampoos and flea collars. These treatments will stop fleas living in your cat’s fur, and consequently stop your cat from eating infested fleas. You should also clean the environment around your cat, as fleas and flea larvae can live in furnishings and clothes. Vacuum cleaning is the easiest way to do this. You should also launder your cat’s cat bed, if it has one.

You should also ensure that your cat’s feces is not easily accessible to flea larvae. This means cleaning it up regularly, and ensuring that your cat doesn’t go to the bathroom around the house. If your cat were to hypothetically only go to the toilet in its tray, and you cleaned up its poop soon afterwards, there would be precious little opportunity for the flea larvae and proglottids to meet.

Cat Tapeworm Anthelmintics

Tapeworms and other worms are treated with medicines known as anthelmintics. These are medications that specialize in killing worms. You can get them either over the counter, or if your cat needs a stronger dose, from the vet. Anthelmintics are a kind of oral medication.

There are many different kinds of anthelmintic available, and some work in different ways to others. The most common are mebendazole, albendazole, thiabendazole, praziquantel and ivermectin. The first three of these work by stopping the tapeworm from absorbing the sugars it needs to survive. This kills the worm, although it won’t kill its eggs. The latter two work by paralyzing the worms instead.

These are administered either by mouth or by injection. The vet can administer the injections, or you can administer the medication by mouth. Each medication can come in different strengths and have different instructions for how it’s administered; follow these instructions and/or the ones the vet gives you.

The prognosis (likely outcome) of using anthelmintics is very good. They are highly effective at treating worms; when administered as per the instructions, they typically have a success rate of 95-100%. If an initial dose doesn’t work, another dose can be administered as per a vet’s instructions. Side-effects of anthelmintics are rare, but include salivation, vomiting and diarrhea. Once the tapeworm is killed, if proper precautions are taken, it’s next-to-impossible for your cat to develop the condition again and it should make a full recovery.

Should I Quarantine My Cat with Tapeworms?

There isn’t any need to quatantine your cat if it has tapeworms, or takes tapeworm medication. If you a) treat the worms, and b) take steps to stop fleas from accessing your cat’s feces, then they can’t spread.

What to Expect When You Give Your Cat Tapeworm Medication

Tapeworm medication for cats is highly effective. That’s because there’s no way for the tapeworm to avoid it, since it eats whatever your cat eats. When the tapeworm ingests some of the medication, it dies very quickly and its latch is released. It is then digested by the gut, like any other food would be. As such, don’t expect to see large segments of worm or an entire tapeworm in your cat’s feces.

You can expect to see a reversal of the symptoms described above, however. Your cat may begin to gain its weight back, and the effects of its nutritional deficiency may be reversed. You will stop noticing proglottids in your cat’s feces or around its anus, and it should regain its normal appetite. It should then return to full health.

How Long Does It Take to Kill Tapeworms in Cats?

cat weight issues
It won’t be long until your cat is back in perfect health.

Most kinds of medication can kill tapeworms within the hour. They are highly effective because there is no way for the tapeworm to avoid the medication; they work quickly because all the medication has to do is reach your cat’s gut, which it does in the timeframe of normal digestion.

However, sometimes the tapeworm survives. That’s why most medications require a follow-up dose a week or two later. The purpose of this is to make absolutely sure that the tapeworm is dead.

What Happens If Tapeworms Go Untreated in Cats?

Since tapeworms don’t cause immediately serious health problems, you may be tempted not to treat your cat for the time being. That could be because of the cost involved in seeing the vet, because you don’t have time, or because you don’t believe that tapeworms are serious enough to take treatment steps for.

There are, however, complications to untreated tapeworms in cats. Chief among these are:

  • Weight loss. While weight loss is not sudden, it does accumulate over time. Your cat may be a healthy weight now and for the near term, but not in the medium or long term.
  • Anemia. Anemia occurs when there is a low level of iron in your cat’s blood. While tapeworms don’t feed on blood, they feed on the nutrients in your cat’s gut, including iron. This can cause a shortage.
  • Blockage in the intestines. In the most severe cases, tapeworms and other worms can cause a physical blockage in the gut. This can stop your pet from eating at all, or from going to the toilet.

It’s for these reasons, and for your cat’s general feeling of well-being, that you should treat its tapeworm as soon as possible.