Even though roundworms are common intestinal parasites in cats, that doesn’t make roundworm infections any less serious, as these parasites can cause serious illness and even death in kittens. In the very least, they can cause chronic diarrhea and poor growth, so they definitely deserve the attention of any new cat parent.
What are roundworms?
The scientific name for the parasitic roundworms that infect cats is Toxocara cati, but they are also known as ascarids. They reproduce by laying tiny eggs within the intestine, which eventually become yellow, round-bodied worms that can get up to 15cm long. In large numbers, they become a serious problem.
Roundworms spend most of their life living in the gut of cats, feeding on its intestinal contents, but unlike some other parasites, they don’t attach to the wall of the intestine and swim freely instead. Almost all cats will become infected with roundworms at some point in their life, most likely as kittens.
A roundworm infection does not pose a serious health threat to adult cats, but it can be very dangerous for kittens and older cats.
What are the symptoms of roundworms in cats?
In kittens, common clinical signs of a roundworm infection include abdominal discomfort, a pot-bellied appearance, vomiting, loss of appetite, dull hair and diarrhea. The worms may even move into the lungs, causing a persistent cough. When the numbers of worms are small, the cat may not exhibit any clinical symptoms, but you may notice adult roundworms in their stool or vomit.
A parasite infection means having a foreign creature feed off your own resources, which can never be a good or pleasant experience and should be addressed properly as soon as possible.
How do cats get roundworms?
Risk factors for roundworm infection include mother cats with a pre-existing infections and environments that are heavily contaminated with earthworms, cockroaches and birds, who commonly transport roundworm eggs as accidental hosts. Basically, eggs that contain infective roundworm larvae can be picked up from soil, dirt or contaminated feces.
However, the most common route of roundworm transmission in kittens is via their mother’s milk. This type of infections are called trans-mammary, or milk-borne infections. Pregnancy can activate roundworms that were formerly dormant, so the larvae in the mother’s mammary glands pass to her babies during nursing.
Once swallowed by the cat, the roundworm larvae are able to complete their life cycle. They hatch out somewhere in the gastrointestinal tract and freely migrate through the muscle, liver and lungs. During this migration, some larvae may become enclosed in a cyst and kept in a dormant state in the host’s body until an event such as pregnancy, as we mentioned. But after a couple of weeks, most of the larvae return once again to the intestine to mature into adults. As soon as the adult worms begin to reproduce, a new batch of eggs will pass into the cat’s stool, thus fulfilling the life function of the parasite.
How is roundworm diagnosed in cats ?
The method for diagnosing roundworm infection is called a “fecal floatation” and it involves mixing a small amount of the cat’s stool in a special solution that causes roundworm eggs to float to the top of the solution. The floating eggs collect on a glass slide which is then further examined under a microscope.
Their distinctive shape makes them easily recognizable, but sometimes it takes more than one examination to gather significant samples. Although prevention is the optimal course of action, sometimes that’s not possible so early diagnosis becomes vital to preventing fatal outcomes, especially for young kittens.
Roundworm in cats treatment
The good news is that the treatment for roundworms is fairly safe, simple and cheap. Cats are typically given an oral deworming or anthelmintic medication, which will immediately start killing the parasites, so dead worms will show up in the cat’s stool. Cats with a large number of roundworms may require more doses to get rid of all of them.
Also, considering that this treatment affects the larvae and eggs much less than the adult forms of the worm, it’s best to have two or three treatments at two-week intervals. Kittens should be dewormed with each visit for booster vaccinations, and outdoor cats should also receive regular periodic doses of a deworming medicine. Whatever the specific health requirements of your cat may be, leave it to the veterinarian to find the best treatment option. As long as it is treated early and swiftly, most cats recover well from a roundworm infections.
What happens if roundworms go untreated in cats?
Like we mentioned, worms treatment is fairly cheap and easy, however, cats that are left untreated can go through a lot of discomfort like diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain. Untreated older cats as well as young kittens can even develop pneumonia or malnutrition, which can eventually cause death.
How can I prevent my cat from getting worms?
The following measures are a good place to start:
- Many monthly heartworm preventative drugs also protect against roundworms, and this is the easiest and simplest method for preventing the infection
- Keep your cat’s environment clean by regularly emptying the litterbox and occasionally bleaching it with a chlorine solution
- Keep your cat indoors so that it’s less exposed to critters and animals that may carry the parasite
- Mothers should be dewormed in late pregnancy in order to reduce the risk of transmission of the parasite to their newborn kittens
- Kittens should receive their first deworming at two to three weeks of age
- Whenever the signs of roundworm infection are noticed, the cat should be dewormed immediately
- Cats at high risk for roundworm infection, such as outdoor cats who like to hunt, should be regularly dewormed every three months
Can people get roundworms from their cat ?
Did you know that roundworm infections are fairly common in humans, as well? In fact, hundreds of millions of people around the world are infected with roundworms at any given time. According to the World Health Organization, about 10 percent of the developing world is infected with intestinal worms, while as many as 10,000 cases have been reported in one year in the United States.
Just like kittens, children have a higher risk of health problems caused by the infection. The most common source of human infection is by ingesting eggs that come from contaminated soil or animal feces. When swallowed, the larvae can invade different tissues and become encysted in various organs.
How dangerous is roundworm to humans ?
Roundworms can live in the human intestine for a long time and cause a lot of damage to the health of the entire body. Besides pain, they can induce fever and gastric abnormalities. In some cases, migrating larvae can cause serious liver problems and even blindness.
To prevent potential transmission, the best thing you can do is to maintain strict hygienic habits both at home and in the outdoors. For example, you should:
- Always wash your hands thoroughly after playing with your pet or handling their litterbox
- If your living conditions don’t provide an area outdoors for your cat to safely explore and play in, don’t let her roam freely outside
- Keep children away from exposure to contaminated environments, but also make sure to prevent the youngest ones from poking around the litterbox
As we discussed so far, roundworms can be a serious medical issue. But with a careful attitude, they are highly preventable and can be efficiently eliminated. Taking good care for your furry companion’s health means taking care of your own health as well!