Worms are endoparasites that live inside the body of your pet. They take up residence in your pet’s small intestine or migrate elsewhere in the body, causing disease. Worms in the digestive system feed off digested food particles or your pet’s blood. This can result in a decrease in body condition and weight loss due to lack of nutrients or anaemia in the host animal. Dogs, cats and their humans can all get worms.
Your cat may show no outward signs of worms – but just because you can’t see any of them doesn’t mean your cat is worm-free. Some pets do have clinical signs and their owners notice diarrhoea or blood in the stool, small rice-like grains around the anus, weight loss or a potbelly. Some pets vomit, cough or struggle to breathe, depending on the type of worms they have.
In this article we will look at the lifecycle of the tapeworm. There are a number of different tapeworm species, but we will be focusing on the Dipylidium caninum species, a tapeworm that uses the flea as its intermediate host. Other tapeworm species use rodents, squirrels, rabbits or even sheep as intermediate hosts. Dipylidium caninum is common in dogs and cats, but cats who stalk and catch prey may also be become infected with other species. Humans are rarely infected with this tapeworm, but it is possible if you swallow an infected flea.
I live inside your cat’s small intestine. I attach to the wall by means of my scolex, which is my head with suckers and hooks. I feed on your cat’s partially digested food, taking up nutrients through my skin.
I am a flat, segmented worm. I grow from my neck area. I can grow as long as 60cm in animals. After my neck area, all other segments form part of my tail.
My body segments look like small grains of rice. I am able to live in the unfriendly digestive environment of the small intestine because I can resist my host’s digestive enzymes so I don’t get ‘eaten’.
My immediate host is the flea. I use fleas to get inside your pet’s body. Flea eggs will hatch around your house and garden. Flea larvae eat dust, flea dirt and tapeworm eggs.
My eggs (now inside the flea larvae) hatch into tapeworm embryos. They remain there, developing into sub-adult tapeworms, until the flea larvae complete their lifecycle to adult fleas. The adult flea with the sub-adult tapeworm (called a cyst) inside is called an ‘infected flea’.
Your cat may scratch or groom herself to try and get rid of the irritation of the fleas and while she does, the infected adult flea gets into her mouth and is swallowed. The flea is toast (it will be digested by the cat’s digestive system), but I will be released into the cat’s small intestine where I’ll attach to the wall and begin life as an adult tapeworm. Your cat is now my definitive host.
The last segment at the end of my tail is a sac of eggs (five to 25), called a proglottid. Within three weeks, the first sac will break off and be passed out when your cat uses her litterbox for a poo. If you look closely you may see the proglottids; they look like small rice-like grains in her anal area. The sac dries out and breaks open to release the tapeworm eggs, ready for the next batch of flea larvae. Proglottids are motile, so don’t be surprised if you see them ‘crawling’ about.
- Deworm your cat
If you haven’t dewormed your pet in the last three months, or suspect a tapeworm infection due to the presence of rice-like grains in your cat’s anus area, it’s time to call your vet and get a dewormer that is effective against tapeworms. The dewormer for tapeworm inhibits the worm’s ability to resist the host’s digestive enzymes and the worm will be digested. This means that, in the case of tapeworms, you will not see dead tapeworms in your pet’s stool. Not all dewormers are safe for kittens, so check with your vet before you give a dewormer.
2. Treat for fleas
Wash all your pet’s bedding on a hot cycle in the washing machine and treat the environment for fleas. Speak to your vet about an appropriate tick and flea treatment for your cat and treat your cat for fleas.