Ask Elizabeth: March 2010

Dear Elizabeth: Sometimes, I find things which appear to be grains of rice stuck to the fur around my cats hind end. Figaro does go outside, but I cant figure out how he could get rice stuck back there. Do you think hes been rooting around in garbage cans looking for food?

No, I dont think garbage can surfing is behind what youre seeing on Figaros posterior. Rather, Figaro appears to have tapeworms. I know that sounds gross, but rest assured that the types of tapeworms commonly infecting cats are fairly harmless. Tapeworms are a prime example of a parasite which has adapted itself to live within another organism while causing that organism minimal harm. By minimizing the harm that is done to the host, the parasite enjoys a place to live and reproduce, a source of nutrition and a means to distribute its offspring, maximizing the chance that its line will live on.

Tapeworms are a type of flatworm and they are indeed flat and long. Tapeworms attach themselves to the small intestine of their host, absorbing nutrients through their skin as the nutrients flow by through the intestine. The parasites are comprised of a head followed by multiple, small segments which contain egg packets. New segments are continually formed near the head while older segments are cast off from the tail end and are eliminated from the hosts body in the feces. When newly eliminated, the segments may move around on the surface of the stool or on the fur near the anus.

As time passes, the segments dry out (this is the stage that resembles rice grains), eventually cracking open and liberating the eggs. It is these dried out segments that youre finding, and the fact that youve seen them is good because now you know that Figaro is infected and you can treat him to remove the parasite. Without seeing evidence of the segments, it can be difficult to diagnose a tapeworm infection since the eggs are not routinely passed in the stool where they could be detected in fecal exams as is the case with other types of parasites.

Most tapeworm infections in cats are due to a tapeworm called Diplydium caninum, appropriately known as the Common Tapeworm. Cats pick up the parasite by ingesting fleas which have feasted on tapeworm eggs. Its easy for cats to ingest fleas during grooming sessions, and thus even strictly indoor cats may harbor tapeworms if fleas are present in the house. The second most common tapeworm infection of cats is the Feline Tapeworm, Taenia taeniaeformis. This tapeworm is picked up when cats eat rodents that contain tapeworm larvae, and therefore this type of tapeworm only affects hunting cats. Both of these tapeworms require an intermediate host, meaning that the tapeworm egg must be ingested by another being, where it matures, before it is then ingested by the final host, in this case the cat.

Cats cannot pick up these tapeworms directly from other cats, nor can cats pass these tapeworms directly to people. Cats and people would need to ingest either a tapeworm infected flea or a rodent infested with tapeworms to contract these types of tapeworms. Another more rare type of tapeworm that can affect cats is Echinococcus multiocularis. This tapeworm affects cats in limited areas of the northern central United States, Alaska and Canada, and follows ingestion of rodents. Importantly, humans can be infected directly from cats if tapeworm eggs from cat feces are somehow ingested, and severe illness may result … this may happen if cats use gardens or sandboxes as litterboxes and people inadvertently get fecal material on their hands and dont wash before eating. Other types of tapeworm infections can follow ingestion of infected fish, birds or reptiles.

Fortunately, tapeworms dont cause many health problems for cats, and tapeworm infections are usually more upsetting to owners than a problem for their cats. A cat with an exceptionally large tapeworm burden may lose weight, and some cats with tapeworms have an itchy anus and may drag their rear ends along the ground to relieve the itching. Your veterinarian can examine the segments that youre finding and let you know which tapeworm is affecting Figaro and whether he is more likely to have picked up the infection from fleas or rodents.

Tapeworms are easily treated with praziquantel which can be obtained from your veterinarian. Tapeworm infections can be prevented by controlling fleas and preventing cats from hunting or eating raw fish. A regular deworming program for outdoor cats should be discussed with your veterinarian.

Love, Elizabeth