Like alien soldiers, parasites can invade our cats bodies, camp out in their gastrointestinal system, and prepare for combat by incubating, gaining sustenance, and multiplying. If not treated, some parasites may seek out another battlefield by targeting you and your family. These parasites are divided into two categories – worms and one-celled protozoa. Infection by gastrointestinal parasites is one of the most common problems in cats. Roundworms and coccidia are very common, says Susan Wade, PhD, director of the parasitology section of the Diagnostic Laboratory at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
How parasites affect the host cat depends on the cats overall health. Although infection by some parasites is benign, others can be life threatening. Hookworms, for example, migrate to the lungs and then the intestines where they develop into adult worms and ingest blood. Hookworms can cause severe anemia if enough of them inhabit the cats intestines, says Wade. A kitten may die from the blood loss.
Cats can become infected with roundworms by ingesting egg-contaminated stool or by eating infected mice or other rodents; kittens become infected by nursing from an infected mother cat. Tapeworm infections result from ingestion of fleas or rodents. Kittens usually contract hookworms through the milk of an infected mother or by larvae penetrating their skin. Some parasites pass from cat to cat in an unsanitary environment.
Although you may be able to see some types of gastrointestinal parasites such as roundworms or tapeworms when your cat vomits or passes stools, most of them are invisible to the naked eye. Veterinarians diagnose them by preparing a fecal sample for microscopic examination, says Wade, who received her PhD from Cornell University.
In some cases, no external signs of gastrointestinal parasites are present, but in others, specific warning signs develop. Diarrhea with or without blood or mucous in the stools may be a sign of parasite infection. Young cats may have pot bellies and bloating, and they may look scruffy, says Wade, particularly with roundworms.
Diagnosis and treatment
By examining your cats feces, your veterinarian is able to detect the presence of gastrointestinal parasites. Its really important to take a stool sample to your veterinarian each year, advises Wade, especially if you have multiple cats or cats that go outside.
Various medications are used to treat gastrointestinal parasites. Timely worming and flea control products help prevent the parasites from infecting your cat. Be sure to follow your veterinarians instructions carefully, especially if you are medicating a kitten. Following appropriate sanitation procedures, such as cleaning the litter box daily and regularly disinfecting it with household bleach, are the best ways to prevent the spread of intestinal parasites. In addition, wash your hands after scooping the litter box and cover your childrens sand box to prevent cats from using it as an outdoor litter area. The best control is to keep the environment clean, says Wade. And, if your cat stays inside, it wont contract most of these parasites in the first place.