Parasites can be nasty critters that can pose a serious threat to pets and people living in your house. Symptoms can ranges from mild to severe, and should be treated to prevent any lasting issues or discomfort. In this week’s post, we’ll talk about the most common parasites that prey on cats, the best courses of treatment and the most effective ways to keep your feline friends from even coming into contact with them in the first place.

What are the different types of parasites that affect cats?
Parasites can be divided into two broad categories: external and internal. The former are those that attach themselves to a cat’s hair and skin, often causing symptoms like itchiness or skin irritation. The most common that affect felines are:

We all know about what happens when these charming little critters hitch a ride on our pet and set up shop in our homes. But these small, blood-sucking insects don’t just cause horrible itchiness, extreme discomfort and potentially severe skin reactions in both humans and felines, they can also potentially transmit tapeworms (which are internal parasites) if eaten. Fleas are also particularly dangerous to young kittens, which can become severely anemic if infested. Fortunately, keeping your kitties flea-free is very easy with an effective preventive treatment plan.

• Ticks
Ticks typically live in grassy or wooded areas and attach themselves to your cat as it walks nearby. The tick’s bite itself is necessarily dangerous, but the feeding process can inject serious diseases such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain fever directly into a cat’s bloodstream. Though ticks generally affect outdoor cats more than those who stay inside, they have ways of getting into your house undetected especially on dogs or even clothing from being outside.

Tiny insects that live on your cat’s skin, mites are tiny insects that live on your cat’s skin can causing severe irritation, itchiness, pain, hair loss and potentially nasty bacterial infections. Among the most common types are ear mites, which infest and feed on a cat’s auditory canal. If you notice your kitty scratching its ears or violently shaking its head, check the inside of its ears. If you see any dark flecks that look like coffee grounds, they could be mite droppings.

• Ringworm
Perhaps the most misleadingly named parasite, ringworm is not actually a worm, but rather a fungus that leaves small, slightly itchy, ring-shaped patches on the host’s skin. Though ringworm does not cause much pain or discomfort in affected cats, it can weaken your kitty’s immune system if left untreated. More importantly, the parasite is extremely contagious and can spread very quickly to humans and other pets that live in the same house.

Internal parasites are those that get inside your cat’s internal organs, causing vomiting, diarrhea, decreased appetite, weight loss, anemia and hair loss in the process. Your cat can get internal parasites in variety of ways, but the most common route of exposure is the ingestion of feces from infected animals (through grooming, exposure to contaminated soil or sharing a litter box) or eating an intermediate host such as a rodent or flea. Many of these parasites are “worm-like” in nature, whereas others are single-celled organisms. It is important to check for and treat internal parasites quickly, because even though some have little effect on a cat’s health, they can be quite dangerous to humans living in the same home. The most common internal parasites include:

• Heartworm
This parasite gets into a cat’s blood stream via mosquito bites and travels from there to the host’s lungs. Once inside that organ, heartworms pose an extremely serious threat to the kitty’s life. Even a single worm can kill an infected feline, and many of those who die from heartworm are clinically normally even an hour before. So a rigorous, potentially year-round prevention program is absolutely critical, even for indoor cats and those that don’t live in high-mosquito areas.

Known to cause abdominal discomfort and vomiting, roundworms typically grow to three to six inches in length once inside an affected feline’s intestine. Unlike other intestinal parasites, though, roundworms swim freely inside the host instead of attaching themselves to its intestinal wall. Because this parasite’s eggs typically live in bodies of water and soils, outdoor cats are particularly likely to get them. However, the eggs can quite easily make their way into a house. For example, as much as 15 percent of commercially available potting soil contains them. So do not assume that an indoor kitty is completely safe.

• Tapeworms
This parasite is another long worm that lives inside a cat’s intestine, causing weight loss and lethargy in the host. Kitties typically pick up tapeworms by eating another affected critter, such as a flea, mouse or rabbit. Signs that your cat might have a tapeworm include scratching its rear end and pieces of the worm showing up in its feces.

• Hookworms
So named because of the hook-like apparatuses that these parasites use to anchor themselves to the lining of a kitty’s intestinal wall, hookworms feed on the tissue fluids and blood of their host. Cats typically get this parasite from the stool of other infected animals, either by inadvertently ingesting the larvae or when the adult hookworm burrows through the skin of the kitty’s feet. Because hookworms feed on the feline’s blood, symptoms of an infection generally include anemia, weight loss, a poor coat and digested blood in the cat’s stool.

• Coccidia
Unlike the other internal parasites in this list, coccidia are not worms but are instead single-celled organisms that live inside the cells of the host’s intestinal lining. Like worms, however, they do commonly cause diarrhea. In kittens and debilitated adult cats, this can lead to dehydration, abdominal distress and vomiting. Cats typically pick up coccidia through contact with the stool of animals that already have the parasite, by eating an infected rodent or bird or from their mothers.

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How are parasites treated?
It is not unusual for a cat to get one of the above mentioned parasites at some point in its life. Fortunately, treating this problem, if done early and quickly, tends to be pretty easy and straightforward. Obviously, the appropriate course of action depends on the type of parasite that your kitty has managed to acquire (external or internal, worm or fungus or insect, etc.). The key is to consult with your veterinarian as soon as you suspect that your feline friend has an infestation or infection. Please do not treat your kitty without talking to your vet first, as some commercially available products (particularly those intended for dogs) are not safe for cats.

How can parasites be prevented?
It is often said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and this is absolutely true when it comes to parasites. Because cats are so good at masking pain and discomfort, it can sometimes be difficult to notice the symptoms of parasites until the infestation or infection is very severe. So the best way to make sure that your kitty stays happy and healthy is to limit its potential contact with parasites, get it tested regularly for the ones that are not outwardly obvious and apply preventive medications at regular intervals. This is particularly true for young kittens, which are at increased risk and which require a plan to eliminate any internal parasites that they might have picked up from their mothers or littermates. The following are some good steps to take to ensure that your feline friend stays parasite-free:

• Keep your kitty indoors. Though indoor cats can and do get parasites, going outside greatly increases the risk that a kitty comes into contact with something harmful. Those that spend time outdoors can also often bring parasites back and pass them to their indoor-only brothers and sisters, so it’s important that all your cats remain safely inside the house.

• Bring your cat to the vet for regular checkups. Because the signs of parasite infestations and infections can sometimes be subtle, it is important to bring your kitty in to see the vet at least once a year. As a medical professional, your vet is trained to look for any indications that your beloved pet might have come into contact with something nasty.

• Test for parasites frequently. When you bring your kitty in to see the vet, make sure that he or she runs fecal tests to check for internal parasites at least once a year (or more frequently for kittens and outdoor cats). This will ensure that anything is nipped in the bud early and before it has a chance to cause lasting harm. Checking for heartworms on a regular basis is particularly critical.

• Develop a preventive treatment plan that is specific to your cat. The parasites most likely to affect your cat depend on a variety of factors, including its age and lifestyle, the time of year and the area in which you live. Therefore, you should work with your vet to determine the best combination of preventive medications to administer to your kitty. At a minimum, your cat should receive anti-heartworm medication (either topically or orally) on a monthly basis and treatment for tapeworm at least once as a kitten. Because they are at greater risk of getting parasites, younger cats and those who spend time outdoors should receive additional and more frequent preventive medications. As was mentioned above, please do not administer any anti-parasite treatments, even the nonprescription ones, without talking to your vet first. Some of the ones designed for dogs (for example, many of the anti-flea and anti-tick medications available at the pet store) are not safe for cats.

• Feed your cat a commercially prepared and balanced diet. Though cats’ digestive systems are designed to process raw meats, uncooked food can often be a breeding ground for parasites. So store-bought cat food is a safer option for your kitty. Keeping your feline friend’s water bowl clean and refilled with new water will also decrease the risk of parasites.

• Keep your kitty’s litter box clean. Because so many internal parasites are spread through contact with the feces of an infected animal, it is important to scoop and change your kitty’s litter regularly. This is especially true if you have multiple cats who share litter boxes. For your own protection, it is also not a bad idea to wear gloves when you have to clean in and around the box.