Cats can become infected externally with fleas and often will ingest them when grooming. Fleas can carry a tapeworm known as Dipylidium caninum. Tapeworms, a type of segmented flat worm, can attach to your cat's intestines with its suckers. Each segment on a tapeworm has reproductive organs containing eggs. Once the eggs hatch within your cat's intestines, the larvae become adults and reproduce. While symptoms of tapeworms might not affect your cat, heavy infestations can cause discomfort.
Mode of Transmission
Fleas infected with tapeworm larvae can transmit the disease to your cat. Fleas become infected with tapeworm larvae when they ingest infected fecal material. Fleas then become carriers for the tapeworm and are capable of transmitting the disease to other hosts. Cats can ingest fleas through grooming or if they catch rodents and other small mammals who carry fleas. If your cat becomes infected with fleas, the fleas can fall off of your cat's fur and into its bedding or onto your carpet. When the cat lays down on its bedding or your carpet, accidental ingestion of fleas can occur.
Tapeworm Life Cycle
Once your cat swallows a flea infected with tapeworm larvae, the flea becomes digested, releasing the larvae. It can take up to one month for larvae to reach maturity, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adult tapeworms will then produce segments. The segments eventually detach from a tapeworm and migrate through your cat's gastrointestinal tract and through its anus. The segments pass through your cat's stool, thus completing the tapeworm's cycle.
Signs of Infection
You can visually detect if your cat has tapeworms. Tapeworm segments can be seen around your cat's anus or in its stool, indicates the CDC. When fresh, segments appear like grains of rice. When dried, segments look like sesame seeds. Your cat may excessively lick itself to alleviate discomfort. With heavy infestations, your cat may become anxious or vomit. Cats also can develop anemia, lose weight and develop patchy fur.
Using flea treatments designed for cats as preventative measures can help reduce the risk of your cat eating fleas. Keeping your cat indoors also can minimize the chance of your cat catching small mammals. When your cat does become infected, your veterinarian can prescribe praziquantel to help eliminate the infection. Once your cat is treated, clean up after your cat daily and wash its bedding to prevent reinfection. Your veterinarian also may want a stool sample after your cat's treatment to ensure that its tapeworm infection has been eradicated.
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