Most cats get tapeworms from swallowing infected fleas -- something that’s not likely to be on the menu -- or rodents. It is possible that your kitty could contract some types of this parasite in other ways. Always make sure you know what’s going into your cat so you don’t put her at risk.
Tapeworms are segmented intestinal parasites, common in mammals. If your cat has tapeworms, your first clue might be when you spot little wriggling ricelike bits on her rear end. These can also turn up in the litter box, perched atop fresh feces. After the segments dry out they no longer look like grains of rice, but more like flat, brown sesame seeds. The worms live in the intestines and absorb some of the food that your kitty is in the process of digesting, robbing her of some of her nutrients. Despite this, according to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, tapeworms usually don't cause serious health issues in cats.
Tapeworm Life Cycle
The tapeworm life cycle starts when an infected animal passes tapeworm segments, which are actually egg capsules. Before these eggs can make trouble for your pet, they must first pass through an intermediate host, most commonly a flea or a rodent. Only when your cat swallows the intermediate host is she at risk for getting tapeworms. Your kitty is most likely to get these parasites by gulping down a flea during the process of grooming. If she’s a ferocious hunter she can also get them from infected rodents. Once she ingests a mature larva, your pet is likely to become infected.
Cats can get tapeworms from unhealthy food only if it contains mature larvae. So if your pet is eating food contaminated with infected fleas, rodents, fish or other tapeworm hosts, she can be at risk for developing the worms. If she swallows eggs that have not been through an intermediate host, the tapeworms can’t develop. In most cases pet food is processed in such a way that tapeworm larvae are unlikely to survive, so even if the critters find their way into the pet food, they aren’t going to create problems.
To protect your cat from contracting tapeworms, feed her only meat that comes from a known source. It’s not worth trying to save a few bucks at the risk of infecting your pet with tapeworms. If you aren’t sure about the food, cook it. According to the Food and Drug Administration, cooking kills the larvae and makes the food safe. Commercial pet foods undergo both inspection and processing to ensure that parasites are not a problem. Using a good commercial cat food not only protects your cat from tapeworms and other potential problems, it also is a good way to make sure she gets a balanced diet.
- Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine: Gastrointestinal Parasites of Cats
- Cats.org.uk: Fleas and Other Parasites
- Pet Informed: Flea Tapeworm Lifecycle
- FDA: Bad Bug Book: Diphyllobothrium Species (Page 133)
- Your Cat: Simple New Secrets to a Longer, Stronger Life; Elizabeth M. Hodgkins, D.V.M. (Pages 181-188)
- Martin Poole/Digital Vision/Getty Images