Gastrointestinal parasites in cats

Gastrointestinal (GI) parasitism is a common problem in cats , with prevalence rates of up to 45% in some populations. These parasites can be worm-like or single-celled protozoan organisms. They usually cause quite nonspecific symptoms, such as a dull coating, cough, vomiting , diarrhea , bloody mucus or stool, loss of appetite , pale mucous membranes, or a pompous appearance.

Vomiting, diarrhea, anemia, and dehydration caused by intestinal parasites can weaken a cat, making it more susceptible to viral and bacterial infections and other illnesses. Importantly, some gastrointestinal parasites of cats have the potential to infect humans.


Are there different types of internal parasites or worms?

There are several types of internal parasites that cause problems in cats. These include roundworms, such as Toxocara cati, Toxascaris leonina; heartworm (Dirofilaria immitis); tapeworms, such as Dipylidium caninum, Taenia species, and Echinococcus species; and hookworms, such as Ancylostoma species.

Are these infections serious in cats?

Intestinal worms can be a serious problem in young kittens. Hookworms can cause anemia, and roundworms can lead to poor growth and development. Tapeworms can also accumulate in large numbers, leading to intestinal obstruction.

However, in adult cats, intestinal parasites are only occasionally life-threatening. Weakened animals or those with a weakened immune system are more likely to experience severe intestinal parasitism and show clinical signs due to their worms.

Heartworm disease is a major life-threatening problem in dogs and is increasingly recognized as a threat to cats. Heartworm disease is transmitted by mosquitoes and can cause extensive damage within the heart and lungs.

What will happen if my cat has worms?

Round worms

If a growing kitten becomes infected with a large number of roundworms, the worms can stunt the kitten’s growth, cause severe digestive upset, and lead to excessive gas formation. These kittens often have a characteristic “tummy” appearance.

Roundworms live freely in the intestines. Roundworms do not require an intermediate host to spread from one cat to another, but can be transmitted by ingesting the eggs that are passed into the feces of an infected cat.


Hookworms are one of the most significant intestinal parasites of the cat. The hookworm is about ½ to 1 “(1-2 cm) long. It attaches itself to the lining of the small intestine, where it feeds on blood. As a result of sucking blood, hookworms can cause severe anemia in infected cats.

Infectious larvae can enter the host either orally or through the skin, particularly on the feet. Eczema and secondary bacterial infection can occur due to irritation as they penetrate through the skin.

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Tapeworms require an intermediate host, such as a flea, bird, or certain species of rodents, to complete their life cycle. In other words, your cat cannot get tapeworms directly from another cat or dog. Dipylidium caninum, the most common cat tapeworm, causes few problems in adult cats, but can cause digestive disorders and growth retardation in kittens. Dipylidium’s intermediate host is the flea; cats contract tapeworms by eating an infected flea.

Taenia species of tapeworms usually infect adult cats and cause few problems. Intermediate hosts for Taenia species are small mammals such as rodents, rabbits, and some species of birds. Therefore, this parasite is more common in cats that hunt outdoors. Kittens become infected occasionally (especially when they eat raw prey) and, in severe infections, large numbers of tapeworms can cause intestinal obstruction.

Echinococcus is important because it is zoonotic, which means that it can infect humans. The adult tapeworm is small, only ¼ “(5-6 mm) long. Sheep and sometimes humans can act as intermediate hosts for Echinococcus, and immature forms of Echinococcus develop within various organs of these species. Echinococcus is a risk for Cats that live near sheep.

Heart worms

Heartworm disease is not common in cats, but its incidence is increasing, especially in certain areas of North America. Heartworms are spread by mosquitoes; A mosquito, when feeding on a cat, can inject worm larvae into the bloodstream. These larvae mature and eventually travel to the heart, residing in the major vessels of the heart and lungs.

In the cat, the symptoms associated with heartworm infection are nonspecific. Heartworm disease can cause coughing, rapid breathing, weight loss, and vomiting. Occasionally, a cat infected with heartworms will die suddenly and the diagnosis will be made in a post-mortem examination. Heartworms are large worms, reaching 6-14 inches (15-36 cm) long. They are found mainly in the right ventricle of the heart and adjacent blood vessels.

How can I prevent or treat these parasites?

Talk to your vet about the most appropriate parasite control program for your cat. Prompt treatment for worms should be given when intestinal parasites are detected; Routine periodic deworming may be appropriate for cats at risk of reinfection. Controlling fleas will prevent infection with certain types of tapeworms. There are excellent preventives for heartworms now available for cats, making prevention of heartworm disease safe and easy.




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