Written by Dr. Cariann Turbeville

Worms in cats can be problematic for a number of reasons. There are four basic types of worms which threaten your cat’s health. And if left untreated, an infestation of these worms can cause even your well-fed cat to become malnourished or lead to other health issues.

Each has a different physical appearance and requires a specific treatment or preventive. In all cases, veterinary assistance is recommended. Home remedies and most over-the-counter products are not effective in preventing or resolving a worm infestation.

What kind of worms do cats get?

  • Roundworms – A common worm typically acquired by your cat in an outdoor environment, from rodents or soil contaminated with feces. May also be passed by a nursing queen to her litter.
  • Hookworms – These worms are hair-thin and very small. These worms literally have teeth, enabling them to latch onto the lining of your cat’s intestine and feast on its blood.
  • Tapeworms – There are two types, which can be passed to your cat via the bite of an infected flea or by ingesting a rodent that is carrying them.
  • Heartworms – Difficult to diagnose and untreatable in cats, these are the most dangerous of the many types of parasites which can infest your pet. Heartworms invade your cat’s body through the circulatory system, entering through a mosquito bite. The foot-long worms resemble wads of tangled fishing line, and can block your cat’s heart and lungs. Just one of these worms can pose a life-threatening risk to your cat. Because they do not inhabit the digestive system, you may never see evidence of them. In fact, even a blood test may not reveal their presence in the early stages of infestation. Preventing them is key. Read more about feline heartworm disease.

How do cats get worms?

In order to understand how your cat may become infested with worms and other parasites, you need to look at your home and surrounding environment. Here are the four most common sources of worms that may put your pet at risk:

Worm eggs in the environment

Roundworms lay durable eggs in leathery shells which can survive for several months in a dormant state, waiting to activate themselves in your cat’s body. If an infected cat or rodent defecates in your yard, the eggs will patiently wait in the soil for their opportunity to mature in a warm-blooded host. Licking and grooming are common means of ingesting eggs that have simply stuck to your cat’s fur. You yourself may even be the carrier, if the eggs stick to the soles of your shoes and you track them into your home.

Hookworms can actually penetrate your cat’s skin if your cat walks or rests in a contaminated area. They are commonly carried by rodents as well.

It’s worth noting that two common parasitic worms, the roundworm and hookworm, may attack both cats, dogs, and humans – they’re open-minded parasites.

Flea bites and mosquito bites

Of all of the species that face extinction, why not fleas? (And mosquitoes, while you’re at it.) Fleas can carry the larvae of the tapeworm, and it’s easy for your cat to swallow a flea, or many fleas, as it fastidiously grooms.

Hunting and Scavenging

Even though Americans spend billions on pet products including gourmet and prescription pet food and toys each year (a reported $72.56 billion for 2018 and growing, as reported by petfoodindustry.com), cats still love to hunt and scavenge. Rodents, rabbits, birds and insects often are carriers of parasite eggs. It’s a great reason to keep your cat indoors.

By Nursing

In a cruel twist, the most natural process in the world, a mother cat nursing her kittens, is frequently a common means of transmission of roundworms.

What kinds of worms do cats most often get?

Roundworm – the most common

It’s a fact that most kittens get roundworms from their mothers, who have gotten them from hunting mice.

Hookworm – hard to see

These fanged bloodsuckers may lie in wait as larvae in the soil of your garden, waiting to be swallowed by casual grooming, or may even bore their way through your cat’s skin if your pet rests in a contaminated area.

Tapeworm – looks like rice

When you spot what resembles yellow-white grains of rice around your cat’s rectum, you are seeing tapeworm segments that your cat has passed through its digestive tract. The moist, white segments are alive and may be squirming, and are easily passed from your pet to other animals. When the segments fall off your cat before reaching another host, they dry into crispy brown bits. Check your cat’s bedding for evidence. Tapeworms are spread by ingesting infested fleas or rodents.

Heartworm – the deadliest.

Cats can get heartworm by being bitten by a mosquito that is carrying the heartworm larvae. Heartworms can grow up to a foot long, and can take up residence in your cat’s heart and lungs. Dogs are more prone than cats to heartworm infestation, but cats are not safe. While dogs infected with heartworm may have dozens or even hundreds of these squirming parasites inside their bodies, it only takes a few — or even one — to make your cat very ill, and shorten your cat’s life. Cats can even become ill from their body’s reaction to the larvae alone.

Mosquitoes feed by landing on the skin of any warm-blooded animal and sucking their blood. When a mosquito sucks the blood of a host animal that is infested with adult heartworms, the insect also picks up what are called microfilaria, or baby heartworms. After that, when the mosquito flies off and feasts on its next host, it injects these larvae into the skin of the new animal, allowing heartworms to develop inside the new host’s body. Then, the babies mature into adult worms in about 6 months, and can live for up to 3 years in your cat. And the cycle begins again every year since each mosquito season can introduce new microfilariae into your pet.

Mosquitoes are common and The American Heartworm Society reports that heartworm disease has been detected in all 50 states. The Society recommends that all cats in the US be given prevention monthly, which requires a veterinarian’s prescription. Talk to your vet or a member of Airvet’s professional team of veterinarians about feline heartworm prevention.

Stay vigilant and recognize that if a mosquito can find you, the hungry pest can also find your cat.

Signs and symptoms of worms in cats

Look for the signs and symptoms that could signal that your cat has been infected with worms including:

  • “Rice”-like segments around your cat’s rectum, in your cat’s litter pan and in feces, and in bedding.
  • Coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing
  • Periodic vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty walking
  • Fainting and collapsing
  • Swollen, tender abdomen, “pot-bellied” appearance
  • Dull, dry, matted coat
  • Pale gums
  • Black or bloody stools
  • Lethargy, won’t play
  • Stunted growth in kittens

How are worms diagnosed in cats?

Diagnosis of deadly heartworm can be difficult and requires a physical exam, X-rays, blood tests and sometimes an ultrasound. Feline heartworm disease has no approved drug treatment, so prevention is key. Heartworm medications for dogs cannot be safely used on cats. Therefore, vigilance is your best line of defense.

With heartworm, the sudden death of your seemingly healthy cat may be your first and only very unfortunate indication of infestation. When a heartworm dies inside your cat, severe complications including blood clots and lung inflammation may follow. Sadly, many cats die when the heartworm(s) they are carrying die.

Other parasitic worms attack the gastrointestinal tract and intestines, and so their presence can be detected through a fecal sample examined by your vet. Because worms can invade your cat so easily, make it a habit to bring a fresh fecal sample with you for every vet visit. It doesn’t matter if there is a little cat litter in the sample.

How to get rid of worms in cats?

The short answer is that it depends on the worm.

Eliminating heartworm in cats

Once infected, there is no treatment for heartworm in cats. Therefore, it’s vitally important to use a monthly prescribed prevention to avoid heartworm disease altogether. Your vet may recommend that you begin prevention even if your cat has  already been diagnosed with heartworms. The medication won’t affect the adult worm(s), but may prevent further damage to your cat from new microfilariae as a result of the mosquitoes. If the heartworm disease worsens and your cat is showing severe symptoms, your cat may be hospitalized to provide supportive care, such as intravenous fluids and medications. In extremely rare cases, surgery is performed by a veterinary cardiologist to physically remove heartworms via a catheter placed into the heart. This is very difficult and is dangerous for the cat.

Eliminating intestinal worms

As with all suspected worms, your cat needs to see their veterinarian. After evaluating your cat they may:

  • Prescribe an oral, topical, or injectable dewormer that will kill the adult and larval worms in the intestine.
  • Prescribe broad-spectrum medications such as Panacur (fenbendazole) and Drontal Plus (pyrantel, praziquantel, fenbendazole) which are used to treat hookworm, roundworm and tapeworm infections
  • Recommend starting your cat on a monthly topical or oral flea (and other parasite) prevention, since tapeworm infections can recur if there are fleas in your home environment.

Worms show no mercy when it comes to targeting your cat as a potential host. Effectively combating attacks requires an equally ruthless multi-prong approach:

  • The best thing that you can do to prevent parasites in your cat is to keep them indoors, for instance.
  • Keep your cat’s litter box clean. And this is especially critical when you have more than one cat.
  • If your cat is a hunter, remove any “trophies,” gifts or otherwise dead prey immediately.
  • Do your best to keep mosquitoes out of your environment, both indoors and out.
  • Use monthly flea prevention on all cats and dogs in your home.
  • Discuss year-round heartworm protection for your cat with your vet.
  • Bring a fecal sample each time you visit the vet.

So, if you think your cat may have worms, start with a consultation with Airvet. Our team of highly qualified veterinarians can help you assess the situation to get your pet back to optimal health! Haven’t downloaded the Airvet app yet? What are you waiting for?

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