It happens to almost every cat owner. You are petting your cat, enjoying a great time of head bobbing and tail pulling when suddenly you notice a cluster of rice like things sticking to the fur at the base of the tail. When you look closer, some of them move! ARGH!!@@#!#! Or, your favourite feline suddenly starts retching on your kitchen floor and mixed in the mess are some pieces of spaghetti, except you don’t have spaghetti in the house, again, this is moving! Yuk! Yes, your cat has worms. Don’t be alarmed, this is quite common and unless a severe problem in a kitten, rarely do these nasty parasites cause health problems for your cat. They are disgusting and can have serious health issues for some humans. The very young, the pregnant and people who have weakened immune systems are most at risk from getting disease from these parasites. In addition, the above mentioned worms are only the tip of the iceberg. Other parasites can cause problems for your cat and your family. What to do? Read on for a full discussion.
But I don’t see any worms!
The common intestinal worms for cat are totally different from the pinworms that you may have had experience with for children. There is no connection at all to pets. The problems that are associated with cat intestinal worms are the invisible larva stages, the microscopic baby worms that hatch from the microscopic eggs. You may see a word
repeated there for emphasis, microscopic! Yes, these eggs and larva are way too small to see with your bifocals! It takes microscopic examination of the stool sample to see if your cat has worms and to identify what parasites are present. Unfortunately, this test is not as accurate as we would like, so for high risk households, regular deworming medication is advised as well as annual testing.
How to protect your family?
The best protection is to ensure that your pet is free from parasites that can affect people. This is best done by regular deworming and annual testing of the stool. In addition, practice good hand washing habits, especially after cleaning the litter box. But, remember how cats love to groom. If your cat is a licker, be careful with that too. You probably know what your cat was licking a few minutes before he came to give you kisses… 😦
What kind of worms are there?
The two most common worms are tapeworms and round worms. It takes a very skilled parasitologist to identify the various round worm types from looking at the actual worm. A fecal sample to find the eggs is the best way to know which kinds are in your cat’s tummy. Tape worms are relatively easily identified as tapeworms but again, the specific
types are best identified under microscope. Hookworms and lungworms are also relatively common parasites in Ontario. They can be associated with significant disease, especially for kittens. Even if your kitten has had a dewormer given at the breeder, it is very important to run a fecal test to ensure that there are no other parasites present. Giardia, coccidia, toxoplasmosis and lung flukes can be found in the sample from your cat’s litterbox.
No discussion of cat parasites would be complete without mentioning toxoplasmosis. Although every pregnant mother seems to be warned about cleaning the cat litterbox, it is far less common in Canada than the warnings would indicate. Most commonly found in cats that eat mice, birds and other mammals, cats rapidly develop immunity to the parasite and do not shed it for long. However, if this parasite is found in the sample, precautions and treatment are required. Direct contact with cats is not considered to be a risk factor infection in people, particularly when cats are kept indoors and fed a commercial diet. Pregnant women are probably more at risk from eating rare steaks than petting a cat. Because these eggs require at least 24 hours to become infective, cleaning litter boxes daily is advised. So the risk is actually quite low but fathers, man up and clean to box for her!
How do cats get worms?
Kittens are often said to be born with worms but the evidence seems to show that in most cases, they are born clean but get infected the moment they drink milk from their mother. Kittens are not fully mature in their immune system until close to a year so they are vulnerable to all kinds of worms in their world. Stray cats eat mice and birds as well as many other creatures. There are many sources of parasites out there. Did you know that cats will sometimes eat crayfish and pick up a parasite from them? Tapeworms are most often associated with eating mice or fleas. Both of these species are intermediate hosts for the complicated life cycle of tapeworms. If may be obvious that the above sources of infection are not present in your house most of the time. Some have suggested that even the potting soil you use for your houseplants can be a source of infection. Granted, this is stretching it a bit but still it is advisable to do a fecal check at least once a
What treatment really works?
Despite what remedies you may see in various pet stores, in Ontario, there really is no such thing as an over the counter medication that is good for deworming cats. The only medications that can be found in pet stores are older style farm medications that have been “grandfathered” into the current regulations and are not advisable to be used for your cats, especially not without veterinary supervision. I have treated cats that had serious overdosage symptoms from products purchased at a supermarket and given at label dosing! Remember that these are products that have been largely replaced by more effective and safer medications. Other products I have seen on pet store shelves are homeopathic remedies. Given the serious nature of worms on human health, I would not want to trust the health of my entire family to an untested remedy. If you do wish to use products like these, it is imperative that follow up fecal testing be done at the appropriate time to ensure that the problem is gone.
Why is it so difficult?
Treatment for worms is complicated by the life cycle of these numerous pests. Every worm produces hundreds, if not thousands, of eggs. These eggs produce larvae that are the actual infectious agent. Most medications are only able to kill the actual adult stage of the worm although some products claim to have the ability to kill some or all of the larval stages but this research is not fully accepted. So the advised treatment is to give a medication that will kill the adult worms, and then treat again after the eggs have
hatched and before the worm has been able to reproduce. This time period varies on the worm and the age of the cat. For kittens, an interval of 2 weeks is usual while adult cats may benefit from a month interval. Again, given the risk for human health, it is too early to trust a single treatment no matter which product is used. Also, choosing a medication that has effectiveness against the worms present is critical. Tapeworm medication will not kill round worms and vice versa.
The ugliness of parasites is obvious just from the sound of the word. With appropriate steps of testing stool samples and appropriate intervals of deworming medication, you can have a worry free life with your cat – even if you are pregnant! In fact, many studies have shown that families that grow up with cats are much healthier and stress free. Don’t let a fear of parasites rob you of the freedom from loving your cats.