Tapeworms can never be passed directly from cat to cat, but they can easily be transmitted by infected fleas leaping from one to the other. Feral cats living semi-wild may often suffer from a heavy burden of these parasites. Tapeworms can be recognised easily by their flattened body shape, resembling a piece of ribbon, which distinguishes them from roundworms. Regular deworming treatment will ensure that they do not threaten your cat’s health.
Tapeworms infest the intestinal tract of cats. In severe cases, they may cause weight loss and a general malaise, but in most cases, there will be few signs of their presence, apart from tell-tale signs in the cat’s faeces.
TAPEWORM LIFE CYCLE
Tapeworms have a complex life cycle, which means that they cannot infect cats without passing through what is known as an intermediate host. As they mature in the gut, segments of the tapeworm break off and move outside the cat’s body, typically being seen in the hair surrounding the anal area. They look rather like small grains of rice at this stage, and they are packed with microscopic eggs.
These eggs are then distributed in the cat’s environment, and may be consumed by a whole host of creatures, typically those which cats prey on, like rodents and birds. Once swallowed, the eggs start to develop in the bodies of these creatures, being transformed into the immature larvae. Only if the bird, for example, is then consumed by a cat will the parasite complete its life-cycle however, growing into a mature tapeworm in the cat’s gut.
FLEAS AS HOSTS
Fleas represent a serious danger to cats, not just because of their feeding habits, but also because they are often the intermediate host of a tapeworm. In this case, the life-cycle is completed by the cat swallowing an infective flea when grooming itself. It is therefore recommended to dose a cat for tapeworms if it has recently had a heavy burden of fleas.
The tapeworm spread by fleas can grow as long as 50cm (20in) in the cat’s gut. Other tapeworms can grow to twice this length.
There is a rare form of tapeworm found mainly in North America called Echinococcus, which can be spread to people. It is the eggs that represent a danger, as they are able to develop in the human liver if swallowed.
Cats in some areas of the world can acquire a particular type of tapeworm from eating uncooked freshwater fish which contains the larval stage in the parasite’s lifecycle.
The adult tapeworm anchors on to the wall of the intestinal tract using strong suckers and hooks on its head. The mature segments packed with eggs are at the other end of its body.
Q. Should I treat my kitten as a precaution against tapeworms?
This usually isn’t necessary until the age of six months. Dosing is then often recommended on an annual basis. But this depends on whether or not your cat is a keen hunter or suffers from fleas — there is little point in treating for tapeworms until you have eliminated the fleas first.
Q. I have seen some tapeworm segments. What should I do? Obtain medication against tapeworms, and give this to your cat without delay. Repeat the treatment in a month’s time, checking carefully for any signs of fleas.
Q. Can people be infected by a cat’s tapeworm?
A child can acquire a tapeworm, but in order to do so, he or she must first catch and swallow an infective flea.