What are intestinal parasites, and how do cats get them?
Intestinal parasites can either be wormlike, such as roundworms, tapeworms, and hookworms, or single-celled, like coccidia, giardia, and toxoplasmosis. Roundworms and hookworms are transmitted through the feces during the parasites’ larval stage; tapeworms are transmitted when your pet ingests infected fleas. Coccidia and giardia are also transmitted by the ingestion of infected soil or feces, though they are cysts rather than larvae. Raw meat is generally the cause of toxoplasma infection.
How do I know if my cat is infected?
Cats infected with intestinal parasites are often asymptomatic, which is one reason routine screening is important. However, the most common signs of parasite infection are diarrhea or loose stools, blood or mucous in the stools, or a bloated, distended belly (especially in infected kittens). Also, owners will sometimes see cats shed tapeworms and roundworms. Tapeworm segments look like grains of rice and will be found on the feces itself, around the cat’s hind end, and in places they’ve sat or slept.
Roundworms are longer, often described as spaghetti-like, and can be found in stool or vomit. If you notice any symptoms or see worms, contact your veterinarian.
Can I become infected with these parasites?
The short answer is yes, some of them. Coccidia and the strain of giardia cats get do not seem to be contagious to people, but roundworms, hookworms, tapeworms, and toxoplasmosis are zoonotic, meaning they can be transferred between species. The good news is that it is easy to avoid infection. Keeping your cats’ litter pans clean and washing your hands after scooping will prevent any chance of infection. Though there is very little chance of exposure through handling litter, pregnant women should avoid scooping the litter pan, and some doctors recommend testing your cats for toxoplasmosis if you are pregnant.
Regular screening for intestinal parasites is recommended for all cats. Indoor only cats should be screened yearly from kittenhood until age five, and cats who go outdoors should be screened yearly for life.
My cat has an intestinal parasite! What do I do?
If your cat has tested positive for an intestinal parasite, your veterinarian will prescribe an appropriate treatment for that parasite. The treatment could be oral or a spot-on treatment, depending on the parasite. Once the treatment has completed, we recommend rechecking a fecal to make sure the parasite has been cleared completely.
How do I prevent my cat from getting intestinal parasites?
We recommend monthly broad-spectrum parasite treatments for any cat with exposure to fleas, mice, or mosquitoes. Even if your cat is 100% indoors, you should asses your living situation carefully: apartment dwellers often think their pets can’t be exposed, but fleas can come in from other apartments if there are untreated pets, and mosquitoes are remarkably resourceful when it comes to sneaking into living spaces.
I want to learn more about intestinal parasites!
Well, you’re in luck! The Cornell Feline Health Center has a fabulous, in-depth guide to intestinal parasites–all you ever wanted to know, and probably plenty you didn’t.