Are You Worried That Your Feline Has Parasites? Here Is How to Tell If a Cat Has Worms

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If you are lucky enough to be some lovely feline’s pet human, then you surely know that cats hold a very special place in our hearts. We love them, they… tolerate us, and we simply could not imagine life without them. Unfortunately, however, mere love is not enough to keep our cats in optimal health.

All cats are susceptible to various health problems, including worms. In fact, most cats will get those pesky parasites at least once in their life. The good news is that worms are both treatable and curable. And if you catch them early enough, they typically do not cause major health problems or lasting damage. However, if you don’t take adequate measures, both your cat and you could get seriously sick.

As with any other health condition, the best strategy against worms includes prevention, vigilance, and timely medical intervention when needed. Most importantly, to ensure that your purring friend is always happy and healthy, you need to know what symptoms to look out for. Here is how to tell if a cat has worms and how to prevent them.

What Are the Most Common Worms in Cats?

Before learning how to tell if a cat has worms, you should have at least a rough idea of what the most common types of worms in felines are. Cat worms come in all shapes and sizes. They can vary depending on the region, the season of the year, and the specifics of local cat populations. Being familiar with the different parasite species could help you spot their respective telltale signs early on and seek treatment for your pet as soon as possible. 

Here is a quick roundup of the most common types of worms in domestic cats.

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Image source: Common Types of Intestinal Worms scaled

Tapeworm

Together with roundworms, tapeworms are the most frequent intestinal parasites in cats. They have long flat bodies that look a lot like strips of tape — hence their name. Tapeworms have tiny hooks in their mouths that they use to attach to the wall of the animal’s small intestine.

As they grow and mature, tapeworms can reach a staggering length of up to 23’’ or 60 cm. Yuck! Their bodies are divided into smaller individual segments, which often break off and get excreted with the cat’s feces. These are usually visible to the naked eye: they resemble sesame or cucumber seeds and tend to be around 0.5’’ or 12 mm long and 1/8’’ or 3 mm wide. 

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Image source: tapeworm lifecircles

Roundworm

Another very common parasite in cats, roundworms affect some 90 percent of kittens. Roundworms can grow up to 3 to 6’’ or 15 cm in length and look like spaghetti — but try not to think about that the next time you order pasta in your favorite eatery. Unlike tapeworms, roundworms do not cling onto the wall of the intestine but rather swim freely within it.

While you won’t be able to see roundworm eggs in your cat’s feces without a microscope, cats sometimes pass or vomit whole worms out. These are much easier to spot.

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Image source: round worm lifecycle dog and cat

Hookworm

Hookworms are much tinier than both tape and roundworms, averaging less than 1’’ or 2.5 cm in length. Their eggs are also too small to see with a naked eye. What they lack in size, however, hookworms make up for in terms of the damage they can cause. If left untreated, these blood-sucking parasites leave bite sites that can cause intestinal inflammation and potentially fatal anemia in both adult cats and kittens.

Lungworm

Lungworms are thin, hair-like worms that are approximately 0.4’’ or 1 cm long. As their name suggests, they affect the lungs and not the intestines. Lungworms were once thought to be relatively rare, but a recent study found that some 16% of the felines in an Australian shelter had lungworms. These parasites could cause potentially lethal health conditions and must be treated as soon as they are detected.

Heartworm  

Heartworms are a type of roundworm that affects the hearts, lungs, and pulmonary arteries of cats, dogs, and other mammals. These parasites are transmitted by infected mosquitos that feed on the animals’ blood. Adult heartworms can reach a length of 12’’ or 30 cm.

Unfortunately, while cats do not get heartworms as frequently as dogs, if they do get infected, the condition is often lethal. At present, there is no safe treatment for heartworms in cats. Most vets will recommend supportive and palliative care. In extreme cases, invasive surgery may be needed to remove the parasites.

How Can Worms Make Your Cat Sick?

Why should you learn how to tell if a cat has worms? Because worms, if left untreated, could make your cat seriously ill — or worse.

Intestinal Worms

Intestinal parasites literally steal your cat’s food once it enters its body. They also interfere with your pet’s digestive function, which often results in diarrhea. All that can lead to dehydration as well as the loss of nutrients and electrolytes.

That is particularly dangerous for kittens, as they are still developing and cannot afford to lose valuable nutrients. Their immune systems are also not as strong as those of adult cats, and worm infestations put them at a higher risk of intestinal and other infections.

Furthermore, some worm species, such as the hookworm can cause anemia, which can be a life-threatening condition for both adult and younger cats.

Lungworms

Lungworms can cause serious and potentially life-threatening complications, including:

  • Collection of air outside of the air space of the pulmonary alveoli, also known as interstitial emphysema
  • Pulmonary edema, or buildup of fluid in the lung air sacs
  • Pneumothorax, or collection of air in the pleural cavity
  • Bacterial pneumonia

Heartworms

Heartworms can cause a number of high-risk conditions in cats, such as:

Heartworms can also migrate and cause damage to other organs, including the eyes, brain, spinal cord, and the femoral artery in the hind leg.

How Do Cats Get Worms?

It’s much easier and a lot more common for felines to get worms than you might like to think. That’s why you should know how to tell if a cat has worms. Here is how cats often get parasites:

  • By ingesting the fecal matter of other infected cats or dogs
  • By ingesting worm-infected prey, such as rodents, snails, slugs, and insects
  • Kittens can get worms passed on from their mothers through nursing or close physical contact
  • By swallowing fleas, as they often carry a host of bacteria and other parasites
  • By accidentally ingesting worm eggs
  • Through mosquito and tick bites
  • In the case of hookworms, their larvae can crawl onto and penetrate the skin, making their way inside the cat’s body

Which Cats Are More Likely to Get Worms?

Outdoor cats or cats who spend at least some time outdoors are at a much higher risk of getting worms than indoor cats. They get a lot more chances to catch and eat infected prey or come in close contact with other animals’ feces.

However, the felines that are at the highest risk of getting worms are those that do not get regular preventative care — whether they are allowed outdoors or not.

How to Tell If a Cat Has Worms: Symptoms You Should Watch Out For

Worm-infected cats can display a wide variety of symptoms or none at all. However, you should still know how to tell if a cat has worms, as there are some key signs to look out for. If you detect any of these, make sure to contact your vet right away and schedule an appointment as soon as possible.

Here are some telltale signs your cat might have worms:

Coarse Fur

How to tell if a cat has worms? Perhaps the most obvious and easily detectable symptom that your cat might be suffering from a worm infection is a change in the appearance of its coat. If the fur lacks luster and looks and feels rough and coarse to the touch, it might be due to intestinal parasites. As worms cause cats to lose nutrients, their bodies don’t have enough vitamins and minerals to maintain their coats in top condition.

Weight Loss

If your cat has appetite and has not changed its exercise or eating habits but is losing weight nonetheless, this could be an indication of an underlying health condition such as intestinal parasites. Your cat may be eating as usual, but a big part of its food goes to feed the worms, causing it to lose weight.

Loss of Appetite

Worms can cause stomach aches as well as inflammation of the bowel and stomach lining. They also take up space in the intestines. All of this could lead to reduced appetite in cats.

Swollen Belly

A bloated or ‘distended’ belly is often a symptom of a worm infection. Intestinal parasites interfere with the cat’s digestive function, which could cause a buildup of excess gas and swelling of the abdominal area.

A Change in Bowel Habits

Cat worms can cause both diarrhea and constipation. If your feline displays any of these symptoms often or for an extended period of time, make sure to call your vet.

Bloody Stools

If you ask a vet how to tell if a cat has worms, they will tell you that the intestinal inflammation or bites caused by worms often cause internal bleeding, which causes blood to pass into the cat’s feces.

Vomiting

Throwing up is common in cats and does not necessarily indicate an underlying health condition. However, worms can sometimes cause irritation of the stomach lining or block to outflow to the stomach, which leads to vomiting.

Breathing Problems

If your cat is coughing, wheezing, breathes through its mouth, or has shortness of breath and difficulty breathing, this could be a sign of a heart or lungworm infestation.

Lethargy

Worms often make cats lethargic. If you are wondering how to tell if a cat has worms, watch if it has not been its usual energetic self lately — this could be due to intestinal parasites. A related key symptom to watch out for is a sudden lack of interest in the things or activities that usually get your cat excited.

Dragging Along the Carpet

Has your cat taken to dragging its bum along the carpet lately? As weird as it may sound, this is a telltale sign of worms. Parasites often cause irritation and itchiness. By scratching and massaging its bum across the floor, your cat may be trying to relieve the unpleasant sensations.

Traces of Worms or Worm Eggs

As disgusting as it may sound, it has to be said: if you are looking for tips on how to tell if a cat has worms, finding entire worms, parts of worms, or worm eggs is a foolproof indication of parasites. All of the other symptoms mentioned above could be caused by other health conditions.

Where should you look for worms, worm parts, or eggs? You can find these in your cat’s stool, as well as around its anus, in its bedding, or anywhere else it likes to hang out — think pillows, carpets, sofas, and other soft furnishings. 

While you can hardly mistake whole worms for anything else, worm body parts and eggs can be misleading. They often look like small white or cream-colored grains or seeds. Sometimes, they wriggle too. 

How to Tell If a Cat Has Worms: Checking Your Cat at Home

You need to make a habit of examining your cat for worms on a regular basis. Ideally, you should do this once a month. You can follow the step-by-step protocol below to make sure that you do not miss anything.

Step 1: Inspect Your Cat’s Coat

It’s best to start nice and easy. That would ensure that your cat remains as calm and patient as possible. So, start by inspecting your pet’s fur. Have a good look at it, and don’t forget to feel it with your fingers too.

A healthy feline’s coat should be smooth, soft, and shiny. If it looks dull or flat or is unusually dry and coarse to the touch, this could be a sign of a worm infection or another health condition.

Step 2: Have a Look at Your Cat’s Belly

Next, inspect your cat’s abdominal area. If it looks unusually swollen or rounded, and your cat is not pregnant or hasn’t just had a hearty meal, that could be a symptom of worms. This is all the more so if the swelling does not seem to go away.

Step 3: Examine Your Cat’s Gums

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Image source: Cat Gums Issues

This step could be somewhat unpleasant for your cat, but make sure not to skip it. Place the cat in your lap or sit it next to you. Then, slowly and gently take its head in your hands, holding it securely behind the ears and under the jaw. Lift the cat’s upper lip using your fingertips to expose its gums above the teeth. 

Just like humans, healthy cats have pink gums. White or pale gums, on the other hand, could be a symptom of anemia — which is often caused by parasite infections. 

Step 4: Check Your Cat’s Anus

This is not the time to be squeamish. Take one for the team and lift your cat’s tail to have a good look at its bum. This is a key step of the process, as tapeworm eggs can migrate out of the anus and cling to the surrounding fur. Look for a creamy-white mass of what looks like sesame seeds.

Step 5: Watch for Telltale Behaviors

You should watch for these behaviors and symptoms every day. They could be an indication of a worm infection as well as a host of other serious health issues:

  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloody stools
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dragging along the floor
  • Unexplained weight loss

Step 5: Inspect Your Cat’s Feces

In addition to giving your cat regular physical exams and watching its  behavior on a daily basis, you should also look for worms, worm segments, or eggs in its feces. That is easier if your cat uses a litter box.

First, check for stools that are dark, tarry, or bloody. Even if they look just fine, however, it’s a good idea to check for the presence of worms.

Put on a pair of disposable gloves and use a wooden or plastic stick to poke around and examine the feces. Look for whole worms as well as worm parts and eggs. Remember that body segments and eggs resemble plant seeds.

Once you are done, dispose of the stick and gloves safely and without touching them with bare hands. Don’t forget to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm running water right away. If you touch anything before washing your hands, make sure to also sanitize the compromised surfaces as soon as possible.

Step 6: Inspect Your Cat’s Bedding and Your Home

Last but not least, make sure to inspect your cat’s bedding regularly, as well as any areas of your home where it loves to hang out. Again, look for worms, worm body parts, and eggs. If you find anything, dispose of it immediately using single-use gloves and sanitize your hands and the area immediately.

What to Do If You Suspect That Your Cat Might Have Worms

If you detect any of the signs above, call your vet and ask for an appointment right away. While most of these symptoms could also indicate health problems other than worms, they should never be ignored. When it comes to your pets, it is better to be safe than sorry.

Your vet will give your cat a thorough physical exam and might also ask you to submit a fecal sample for further testing.

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Image source: bigstock Cat Check up

How to Collect a Stool Sample from Your Cat

If your vet asks you to provide a fecal sample, put on disposable gloves and use a spatula or a similar tool to scoop some of your cat’s feces from the litter box. Put these in a tightly sealed container. Make sure to store it in a cool dark place. Ideally, you should not keep it inside your home — a garage or garden shed are better alternatives.

In any case, however, do not store the container in rooms where you prepare or ingest food and always wash your hands thoroughly after handling fecal matter or the container. Make sure to also safely dispose of any gloves and tools you used to collect the samples right away.

Your vet could ask for a pooled sample or fecal matter from bowel movements from three or more days. That decreases the risk of a false negative lab result.

What to Do If Your Cat Is Diagnosed with Worms

If your vet finds that your cat has worms, they will prescribe a course of medication appropriate for the parasite species that has infected your pet. You must administer the medications as directed. In most cases, the problem should then go away quickly. If you still have any concerns, however, contact your vet.

If the treatment is effective, your cat will pass worms and/or worm body parts with its excrement. Do not be alarmed: this is a normal part of the treatment process. However, be very careful when handling and disposing of the feces.

How to Prevent Your Cat from Getting Worms

The best treatment for any kind of health condition is prevention. To make sure that your cat does not get worms in the first place, keep it flea- and tick-free at all times and limit the time it spends outdoors. If the cat tolerates baths, give it a good wash using cat shampoo every now and then. This is particularly important if your cat spends time outdoors.

Don’t forget to also take your cat for regular checkups with its vet and have it evaluated for parasites at least once a year. You should also administer monthly anti-worm treatments. Kittens can get tapeworm treatments from six weeks old, and adult cats can get treated every two to six months.

Last but not least, make sure to provide your cat with high-quality food, adequate hydration, and plenty of exercise. Healthy animals are much more likely to resist or recover swiftly from worm infections.

How to Keep Your Family and Yourself Safe from Cat Worms

Never forget that cats can and do pass worms to humans. To prevent that from happening and keep your family and yourself safe, wash your hands thoroughly with plenty of soap and warm water after touching your cat, its litter box, or handling fecal matter. If you do not have access to soap and running water, use high-quality hand sanitizer or antibacterial wipes and later wash your hands as soon as you can.

Furthermore, always wear disposable gloves when handling fecal matter or your cat’s litter box. 

Last but not least, keep your house and shoes clean. If possible, do not allow your cat in your bed and on top of kitchen counters or anywhere where food is prepared or eaten.

How to Tell If a Cat Has Worms: Final Thoughts

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Worm infections can be annoying for you and unpleasant for your cat but they rarely cause serious health problems if treated on time. To ensure that your furry friend is always healthy and thriving, make sure to watch out for the telltale signs described in our How to Tell If a Cat Has Worms guide and take it for regular checkups with your vet.