Preventing, Identifying, and Treating Worms in Cats
Your cat getting intestinal parasites is surely the last thing you want to think about as a pet owner, and yet it can and does happen. Perhaps you unintentionally missed a round of your prevention or a kitten or cat came to you with worms. You've turned to the internet looking for answers, as you don't want your cat to suffer. The first step is to get your cat immediate veterinary care, but you obviously want to inform yourself about deworming as well. At GeniusVets, we believe that pet care information should come from veterinarians and not from Dr. Google, especially with such a serious topic. That’s why we’ve taken frequently asked questions about cat deworming, sent these questions to renowned veterinarians across the U.S., and compiled their replies to get you useful information that you can trust to avoid this potentially deadly infection.
While we've sourced all of the cat deworming information and recommendations below directly from leading veterinarians across the country, please make sure to seek out the advice of your own veterinarian or find a trusted vet near you using the GeniusVets Directory.
Intestinal parasites are typically little worms that live in your cat's gastrointestinal tract, which are the tubes that go from the stomach to the colon. The most common types of parasites that we see in cats in terms of intestinal parasites are roundworms, hookworms, and tapeworms. We’ll occasionally see whipworms and giardia in cats, but they all have a string-like appearance. We can sometimes them on a fecal flotation, or we can send them off to the lab for enzyme or PCR testing. Kittens can pick them up in utero or they can be passed between the mom and the kittens. Cats can also pick them up by being outdoors or being exposed to other infected cats inside.
Intestinal parasites can wreak havoc on your cat's intestinal system, and they can cause bleeding, cramping, weight loss, runny stool, or diarrhea that sometimes has blood in it, unwillingness to eat, general discomfort, and sometimes the cat can get an intestinal blockage. There are instances, however, when the cat shows no symptoms. Either way, parasites are not good for the intestines, as they can cause inflammation of the intestinal wall, and they decrease the amount of nutrition that your cat gets because they’re essentially stealing it from the cat.
The easiest and best thing to do is to keep your pet on monthly prevention. All kittens have a series of deworming treatments. As an adult cat, we recommend either monthly deworming medications or twice a year, depending on the cat’s lifestyle. Some cats are just indoors, so we might even be okay with once a year, but we still recommend that every cat gets dewormed.
There are all-encompassing preventive products that cover everything, so we're getting your cat protected from the inside out, starting with ear and mange mites. These products prevent heartworm disease, fleas and ticks, and intestinal parasites. They are topical medications that you can apply to the skin on the back of your cat's neck. Other options include deworming several times a year. We have another product for that, which is a topical as well as a liquid. Regular deworming is the best way to go, along with monitoring a stool sample one to two times a year.
If cats have a really serious load, they can get extremely sick. This worm load can cause intestinal obstruction and really low protein levels, which can cause a potbelly. And if the cat has them bad enough, they can even vomit worms or pass large amounts in the stool. Otherwise, the cat might experience mild cramping and an upset stomach that you may not even notice yourself.
Some owners see parasites on their cat, so if you've ever seen what looks like a tiny grain of rice sticking to their bum, that is an intestinal parasite. You might also notice some symptoms, such as losing weight or having vomiting or diarrhea—these would all be reasons to have your cat checked for parasites by your veterinarian.
A cat with a low parasite burden can look and act completely normal. And that's where regular stool screenings with our fecal tests are essential, as they allow us to catch those parasites before they start to cause a problem, which is always the ideal situation.
You can see worms sometimes but it’s not that frequent because, as with most illnesses, cats are good at hiding any sign of worms. When a cat with tapeworms passes a stool, the tapeworm segment adheres to the stool, and you may be able to see the worm. It’s about the size of rice, and it'll be moving. When tapeworms dry, they look like sesame seeds. Roundworms can also be passed if the cat has a pretty high load, and other parasites can also be passed if there is a high enough load. Occasionally, cats will also vomit worms. However, you typically don't see the worms. Instead, we collect a fecal sample and send it off to the lab, and have a microscopic exam to identify what type of parasites, so we make sure we choose the proper antiparasitic medication.
We can diagnose it visually if things are coming out of the cat, but most of the time, we ask you to bring in a stool sample about the size of a walnut one or two times a year that we then send off to the lab. And they not only look for eggs in the stool sample itself but there’s also technology out now that allows us to test the DNA material of several types of worms. This means we can catch it even before these pesky critters have sent egg packets out into the world. So we're getting better and better technology to act more quickly and prevent more issues. Keep in mind it should be a somewhat fresh stool that's still moist so the eggs are present. We can then identify microscopically what type of parasites might be in the stool.
Some potential conditions would be GI upset, an unthrifty hair coat, weight loss, and protein loss, the latter of which can cause the belly to swell. There are also dermatologic issues that can occur sometimes, but, for the most part, it's going to be things that are subclinical, meaning you're not going to be able to see what they are. This is because parasites have learned how to live with the system they're in so that they can stay there longer, making their infections subclinical. Also, cats are not only predators, but they're also prey animals, so their instincts make them good at hiding discomfort.
Despite cats' abilities to hide their pain, you may notice some symptoms.
Some signs that your cat may have a parasitic infection are:
- They're sitting a little more hunched
- They're not as interactive as they used to be
- Possible evidence of bleeding in the intestinal tract, which most often would be associated with the change in their stool (stools can have a dark, tarry appearance)
- Vomiting possibly caused by a bowel obstruction from the parasites
There are also some diseases that we veterinarians sometimes call "fakers" because they look like severe diseases, but they’re caused by an infestation of intestinal parasites. That's why we tend to recommend those intestinal parasite checks a lot. Depending on what we find, then we can recommend a treatment. Many veterinarians will recommend oral dewormers that cover all of the major intestinal parasites that we see in cats. Some other ones require different treatments, so you can talk with your veterinarian about what’s best for your cat.
The parasites are freeloading for a good meal, and they're reproducing. The parasitic infection can get to the point where the burden is so bad that we can have an obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract. It can lead to so much depletion that it makes your cat very ill. It's even gotten to the point where it’s caused such severe anemia that cats have needed blood transfusions—although this is quite rare, it has happened.
There are a couple of parasites that are also zoonotic (primarily roundworms, hookworms, and giardia), meaning they can be transmitted to humans. We don't want your cat or dog to have parasites, and we certainly don't want children exposed to them. We’d like to have every cat that lives with a family to have a fecal sample checked at least once a year. And then, we also want to deworm every cat for roundworm, hookworm, and whipworm.
When you get a kitten, you should see your veterinarian for many reasons—for a health check, to set up a great deworming plan, and also to check for other parasites that cats can pick up. And then if you get a cat as an adult, they should come in and get their first set of dewormings, so we're going to want to do a series of them. And then, depending on the cat's lifestyle, we’ll set them up either on a monthly program or once or twice a year. Prevention covers everything—ear mites, heartworms, fleas, ticks, and intestinal parasites.
If you decide not to have your cat stay on monthly all-in-one prevention land your cat goes outside, you should at least get your cat dewormed every three months, especially if they're a hunter. As we know, some cats are hunters and they can pick up intestinal parasites from mice, rabbits, crickets, or other bugs.
Check out the AVMA's protocols on preventive care for cats for other things you should be aware of beyond deworming. If you have further questions about cat deworming, reach out to your veterinarian. If you don't have one yet, we can help you find a local veterinarian!