To understand what feline parasites are, you simply have to remember back to your school biology days when you learned that a parasite is a living thing that lives on or in another living thing known as the host and gets its food from the body of the host.
Cat parasites do just that and in the process, they harm your kitty in various ways:
Parasites can decrease your cat’s blood volume causing anemia. Fleas on cats can lead to anemia from blood loss, but also cause anemia from the transmission of another parasite from the flea to your cat - the organism that causes feline infectious anemia, also called hemobartonellosis, more recently referred to as feline hemotropic mycoplasmosis.
Big words, but you don’t need to remember them to remember that fleas and other feline parasites can cause big problems for your kitty. Fleas can also cause tapeworm in cats, another parasite.
Feline intestinal parasites, worms in cats, can cause vomiting, diarrhea and discomfort. In addition to tapeworms in cats, feline roundworms are the type you hear most about, but there are others such as stomach worms, hookworms, and whipworms. As if that weren’t enough, kitties also have to deal with cat ear mites, feline heartworm, feline toxoplasmosis, and other such feline parasites.
Fortunately, most feline parasites can be avoided with good preventative care or treated if your cat does acquire one of the parasites. But, of course, prevention is much better for your cat. Waiting until your kitty has something may mean he’s become anemic or has diarrhea and is dehydrated and this can lead to serious illness for your cat and heartache and financial difficulty for you.
How can you prevent your cat from having to suffer from feline parasites? To answer that, first let’s look at how a kitty gets each type of parasite.
Feline Fleas, Feline Tapeworm, and Feline Infectious Anemia
As mentioned above, fleas are not only a parasite that causes disease and discomfort for your cat, but they always carry other parasites that can infect your kitty and cause even more harm. By using flea prevention, you can, to a large extent, prevent two other feline parasites, cat tapeworms and Mycoplasma haemofilis and Mycoplasma haemominutum, the parasites that cause feline infectious anemia. (Cats can also get tapeworm from rodents.)
If I had a penny for every time someone told me their cat couldn’t possibly have fleas and yet the cat did, I would be quite rich. Your cat doesn’t have to go outside to have fleas. You can bring them in, your dog can bring them in, a friend who has a dog can bring them in, your cat can get them when he sits on the screened in porch or even in a window with a screen. And no, you don’t have to have flea bites for your cat to have fleas nor does your cat have to seem excessively itchy nor will you necessarily see them on your cat. In fact, you probably won’t. How then can you know if your cat has fleas and how can you prevent them?
(1) Buy a flea comb. Not just any type of comb, but a very specific comb called a flea comb and check your cat regularly for fleas or flea dirt (the little black specks on your cat that are actually flea feces and are made up primarily of digested blood – your cat’s blood!)
(2) Use a safe, flea preventative such as Frontline Plus for Cats or Advantage for Cats once monthly.
Feline Intestinal Parasites
More commonly known as cat worms, this category of feline parasites includes stomach worms, roundworms, feline tapeworms, hookworms, and whipworms. Cats also can have toxoplasmosis, coccidia, and giardia.
To avoid them:
Prevent your cat from being exposed to the feces of other cats and dogs.
Prevent hunting of rodents.
Deworm all new kittens and stray cats and have their feces analyzed microscopically.
Prevent fleas (can transmit feline tape worm. Cats can also get tapeworm from rodents.)
Stomach worms can be avoided by preventing your cat from ingesting the vomit of other cats, rodents, and larger insects such as roaches and crickets.
Avoid feeding raw meat to your cat to also help avoid infection with feline Toxoplasmosis.
Scoop all feces out of the litter boxes daily. Periodically wash the litter boxes well with a bleach solution.
Treatment of Cat Intestinal Parasites
While your cat will be the healthiest if you prevent infestation with intestinal parasites, cat worm medicine will eradicate most of them should your cat contract them. Cat tapeworm medication and cat worm medicine for other types of worms can be quite different from each other. It is extremely important to have fecal examinations to determine the exact feline intestinal parasite your cat has if intestinal parasites are suspected.
Again, however, prevention is much better for you and your cat than treatment.
Cat Ear Mites
There are thousands of different types of mites and most are microscopic. Some are harmless, such as a type of mite that normally lives on the eyelashes of most people. However, feline ear mites are far from harmless. They create very itchy ears that can lead to serious problems such as ear hematomas from self-trauma, cat ear infections, inflammation, polyps, and even hearing loss.
Feline ear mites are transmitted from cat to cat. Many kittens have them. If you see your cat scratching at his ears constantly or see dark brown/black debris in your kitty’s ears, the most likely cause is ear mites.
They are generally not contagious to people, but I will never forget a story I read once about a veterinarian who decided to find out what it was like to have ear mites. He actually put them in his own ears where they initially thrived, but died off rather quickly. Meanwhile, however, he described them as being incredibly noisy, itchy, and horribly annoying. Not something you want your cat to have to live with, right?
Fortunately, there are very effective cat medications that will completely eradicate cat ear mites. However, as much as I hate to sound like a broken record, it is so much healthier and nicer for your cat if you practice prevention rather than treatment. Keep your cats away from other cats who could have ear mites and your cats will most likely never have them.
There are other mites that parasitize cats, living on the hair and skin. These are the cause of diseases you may have heard of such as mange and scabies. Fortunately, they are not very common and occur most often in immunosuppressed cats. Symptoms may include red, itchy skin, dandruff, and hair loss. The symptoms can look exactly like other skin diseases in cats, especially allergic skin conditions so a veterinarian will have to diagnose the cause if your cat has hair or skin problems. In most cases, only your veterinarian will be able to determine if your cat has allergies or has feline parasites.
I'm sure everyone knows what ticks are. They are extremely unpleasant for you and your cat. If your cat goes outdoors, then certainly he is at risk for getting ticks. Frontline Plus for Cats that was recommended in the flea section above is also an effective preventative for ticks. However, it is still possible for your cat to come home with a tick. If so, you should remove the tick using tweezers. Grasp the head of the tick as close to the skin as you can and pull firmly to remove.
Ticks can give your cat diseases such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Tick Paralysis, Babesiosis, and Cytauzoonosis, a usually fatal red blood cell disease. It is important for you to monitor outdoor cats for ticks.
Lice are so rarely found on cats that it is almost not worth mentioning, but to be thorough, I will. Cats with lice are found in really overcrowded, dirty housing where the cats are not being cared for and the living quarters are very unsanitary. The type of lice cats get is NOT the same type your children come home from school with. Cat lice is not contagious to humans.
Lice cause a cat to become very itchy and often lose hair, especially around the head and neck area and rear end. It takes fairly direct contact for one cat to give another cat lice. Sharing bedding or grooming tools or being in direct contact with a cat that has lice is the way another cat contracts lice.
Unlike some of the other feline parasites we have talked about which are microscopic and cannot be seen with the naked eye, cat lice can be seen on the skin; the eggs can be seen clinging to hairs and appear whitish in color.
Just as there are effective shampoos and treatments for lice on children, cats can be easily, successfully treated also. Speak to your veterinarian about the right treatment for your cat or kitten if you run into this problem. Things that are safe for people and even dogs are not necessarily safe for cats so don't try anything without speaking with your vet.
Remember that if you are treating a cat for lice, you also need to address the possibility of contamination of any bedding and/or grooming tools. They need to be thoroughly cleaned or discarded.
Feline Heartworm Disease
This is a feline parasite that is transmitted not by fleas but by mosquitos. If a mosquito is carrying heartworm larvae and bites your cat, your cat can then be infected with heartworm. It takes approximately 8 months for the larvae to travel through your cat's body and go through the various stages of development that lead to an adult female producing offspring.
It is rare for cats to have the offspring, called microfilariae, in their bloodstream. If they do, it is usually for a very limited time. Some cats are able to eliminate heartworm from their bodies on their own. This probably occurs due to a strong immune response by the cat to the parasite.
While heartworm infection is not as common in cats as in dogs and few larvae actually reach the adult stage, cats can still become very ill. Lungs can become quite damaged. The symptoms may be confused with asthma. However, there can be many different symptoms that are similar to many other diseases such as vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, weight loss, and decreased appetite.
A cat of any age can become infected and your cat does not have to go outdoors to be infected with feline heartworm. It can be difficult to diagnose a cat with heartworm. Many of the signs and tests that identify heartworm in dogs are not as successful in cats.
Likewise, the treatments that are successful in dogs are not approved for cats. There is not products in the US approved for feline heartworm disease treatment. The general approach is to let cats without clinical signs have the time to self-cure. If the cat has clinical signs, supportive care may be needed to address the particular symptoms.
There are, however, several different heartworm preventatives for cats. Discuss the need for heartworm prevention for your cat with your veterinarian. The incidence of heartworm varies according to geographic location.
Summary of Feline Parasites
There you have it. A wide array of different feline parasites causing different problems in different areas of your cat's body. None of them contribute to good health and all need to be eradicated.
We've gone over prevention which is the healthiest thing you can do for your kitty, but sometimes, even with the best of care, your cat may be plagued by one of these nasty creatures. If so, early diagnosis and treatment is the next best thing to prevention.
So watch for signs, have regular check-ups by your vet, including a fecal analysis, and seek veterinary help at the first sign of there being anything wrong with your cat. Healthy, happy, comfortable cats do not have feline parasites of any kind on or inside their bodies. And that's what we all want for our precious kitties, right?
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