Parasitism in Cats
Lurking in cats’ furs, digestive tracts and our carpets, feline parasites are great at escaping our eyes. This is why, for the most of the time, we can be completely unaware of them. However, even if invisible, parasites and diseases they carry can seriously harm our cats’ (and ours!) health. This is why we must continuously monitor our pets for the common parasites and apply the appropriate preventative and therapeutic measurements. To get started, here are few things every cat owner should know about the most common parasites in cats.
Gastrointestinal (GI) parasitism is a surprisingly common problem in pets. There are two groups of gastrointestinal parasites found in cats: worm-like parasites and one-celled protozoan organisms. The symptoms of the GI parasitism are non-specific and include loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, dull coat, coughing, pale mucous membranes and swollen abdomen. The most common gastrointestinal parasites are roundworms, tapeworms and hookworms. Often, gastrointestinal parasitism can be prevented with regular anti-parasitic medications. In case of the infestation, the animal can be treated with specifically prescribed medications against the parasite.
Roundworms (lat. Toxocara cati & T. leonine) are the most common worm-like parasites found in cats. Adult roundworms are three to five inches long and beige in colour. They inhabit the cat’s intestines and eat the food ingested by the host. Female adults can produce up to 300 000 eggs which are then dropped into the environment with the cat’s stool. The eggs become infective 2-3 weeks later and can remain vital and inactive for up to 5 years waiting for a host. Cats (and other animals) may swallow these eggs by sniffing or licking soil soiled by faeces. The infected cat usually shows digestive signs such as potbelly, diarrhea and vomiting. In extreme cases, cats may also show respiratory issues such as pneumonia and coughing, as immature worms pass through their lungs. It is very important to timely diagnose and eliminate these parasites as humans can be affected by pet roundworms too. In people, they cause various health problems including blindness.
Tapeworms (lat. Dipylidium caninum, Taenia taeniaeformis; Echinococcus multiocularis) is a group of parasites that inhabits and resides in the small intestine of the host. Dipylidium caninum or the flea tapeworm, is the most common of the tapeworms as their larvae reside in the fleas. The fleas infect cats with the larvae which then develop into adults in the cat’s intestine. The best preventative measurement against these parasites is therefore flea control. The symptoms of the infestation by the tapeworms include excessive licking of the anal region (due to irritation by segments containing worm eggs), appetite changes and diarrhea alternating with constipation. Although it is rare, humans can be infected by tapeworms too.
Hookworms (lat. Ancylostoma tubaeforme, A. braziliense, Uncinaria stenophala) are slender, thread-like worms which inhabit the cat’s intestines and attach to the lining of the intestinal wall. They feed on tissue and blood. The legs are laid into the digestive tract and passed with faeces. Larvae hatch about 10 days later and live in the soil. Larvae infect cats either through swallowing or through penetration of the skin. Because of the way they feed, hookworms cause internal blood loss in cats, bloody diarrhea and severe anaemia. The impact of these parasites to the cat’s health is very harmful and may even lead to death. Humans can be infected by hookworm larvae too when in contact with soil that contains them. The larvae can penetrate the skin causing itching sensation and leaving visible tracks on the skin where they are burrowing.
Other worm-like parasites
Heartworms (lat. Dirofilaria immitis) are parasites that are transmitted by mosquitoes. The feeding mosquito drops the heartworm larvae which migrate to the new host’s (cat’s) heart and large blood vessels of the lungs where it lives and lay eggs. Often, cats don’t show any clinical signs of the disease and can sometimes suddenly die. Other times, they may show respiratory difficulties.
Lungworms (lat. Aelurostrongylus abstrusus) are parasites whose larvae migrate out of the intestines and reach the lungs through the bloodstream. They develop and lay eggs in the lungs. After hatching, some of the larvae are coughed out and some passed through the stool. They can then infect other animals. The symptoms of infestation involve bronchial and pulmonary issues (coughing, sneezing and pleural effusion), breathing difficulties and lethargy.
Common parasites appearing on the feline skin, coat or ears are ticks, fleas, ear mites and lice. Ticks are small parasitic arachnids which hatch on the host and feed on their blood. Their life cycle includes four stages: egg, larva, nymph and adult. They change 4 hosts throughout their lifespan, moving onto larger hosts as they progress. They parasite on mammals and birds, and can hatch on humans too. They are considered dangerous because they can transmit disease to the host. Common bacteria that are transmitted via ticks are Anaplasma, Ricketsia & Borrelia. Borrelia is the agent of Lyme disease, a health concern that can lead to serious complications if not diagnosed and treated. The best treatment against ticks are preventative measurements such as collars or medications applied on the skin of the animal which repel external parasites. If you ever notice a tick on your pet, it is important to remove is as soon as possible! When removing the tick, hold it tightly with tweezers and slowly keep turning it clockwise until you take it out. Remember not to pull it out fast and sudden as you don't want the head to remain under the skin – this would lead to an infection.
Other common external parasites are fleas, ear mites and lice. You can find more information about these parasites in our blog about Common Skin Problems In Cats.
Parasitism is a major concern in our pets. We have all fought a battle against at least one type of pet parasites in our lives. While dealing with external parasites is relatively easy, dealing with worms can be a lot more complicated. If you ever suspect of gastrointestinal parasitism, consult with a veterinarian immediately. This is because, although the parasites described above are the most common ones, your cat may be suffering from a different kind of infestation too.