Kitten Parasites and What To Do About Them

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Who can resist kittens? Our cats capture our affection so quickly. Something we might forget while cuddling them is that even though kittens are new to the world, they may already be carrying intestinal parasites. It's common for cats (and dogs) to be born with a worm infection and to pick up parasites at an early age. Therefore, cat owners with young kittens should talk with their veterinarian about when to start deworming.

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What are the most common intestinal parasites of kittens?

There are a variety of intestinal parasites that kittens and adult cats can carry.

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The most common are:

  • roundworms‌ such as toxocara cati
  • hookworms‌: such as ancylostoma, which attach to a cat's intestinal wall
  • giardia‌: a microscopic parasite that is not a worm
  • coccidia‌: another microscopic parasite that isn't a worm
  • tapeworms‌: which cats pick up from ingesting an infected flea that is carrying tapeworm larvae
  • whipworms‌: which are more common in dogs but cats can also get them

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What are the symptoms of worms in kittens?

There are a variety of possible symptoms, ranging from mild to severe.

Clinical signs that your cat may have a parasite or parasites are:

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  • loss of appetite
  • scratching and itchiness
  • potbelly appearance
  • weight loss
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • anemia, which can be life-threatening
  • finding tapeworm segments around a cat's anus or on a cat's feces. The segments look like grains of rice.
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How do kittens get parasites?

Kittens can get internal parasites or external parasites from their mother, another pet in the household, or the environment.‌ An example of an internal or intestinal worm is the tapeworm. But not all worms are in the gastrointestinal tract. There is one parasite called heartworm that can be in the heart or in the surrounding blood vessels. Common examples of external parasites in cats are ear mites and fleas.

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Kittens can get internal parasites from:

  • their mother's milk (roundworms and hookworms.)
  • across the placenta, while they're still in the womb (roundworms.)
  • a flea infestation, which can cause a tapeworm infection in the small intestine.
  • the litter box, such as being exposed to an infected cat's poop. A cat's paw may come into contact with microscopic parasite eggs in the litter box. If they lick their paw, ingestion of eggs can occur.
  • contaminated soil.
  • mosquitoes, which can spread heartworm.

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Kittens can get external parasites from:

  • outdoor cats or infected indoor cats
  • dogs
  • the environment
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How are parasites diagnosed in kittens?

That depends on if the parasite is internal or external.

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  • Intestinal parasites‌ are usually diagnosed with a fecal test that your veterinarian does. Some parasites, however, aren't easy to diagnose that way. Tapeworm eggs, for example, are so heavy that they sink to the bottom of the fecal test solution. Your cat can come up with a negative parasite test result and still have tapeworms. This parasite is usually diagnosed when cat owners notice the tapeworm segments on their cat's stool or around the cat's anus.
  • Giardia‌ is another parasite that can be tricky to diagnose. Sometimes a regular fecal parasite can diagnose it but other times special fecal tests are needed.
  • Ear mites‌ are diagnosed by clinical signs and an ear swab cytology. A cat with ear mites will have dark, coffee-ground-like debris in their ears. They will also be very itchy around their ears.
  • Fleas‌ are diagnosed by seeing adult fleas or by seeing their droppings on a cat's skin. The droppings look like small, black specks.
  • Heartworm,‌ which is a parasite in the blood, requires blood tests. Dogs are often diagnosed with one blood test for heartworm but cats should ideally have two tests. That's because the test that works well for dogs looks for the presence of adult worms. Dogs tend to have multiple adult heartworms but cats may have as little as one adult heartworm in their body. This can make the first test come up negative. Hence the need for a second test that looks for heartworm larvae. Sometimes additional tests like X-rays and ultrasounds may be needed as well.

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What is the treatment for parasites in kittens and cats?

Treatment depends on the parasite and your cat's age.

  • Intestinal parasites‌: Your cat will get a dewormer that is appropriate for their age and the type of parasite. For example, kittens under 6 weeks of age with a toxascaris (roundworm) infection can't receive panacur (fenbendazole) but they can receive pyrantel pamoate as early as 2 weeks of age.
  • A kitten with fleas‌: Flea prevention products can be used after your cat reaches a certain age. This varies by product, so talk with your veterinarian about which one is safe to use for your kitten. For kittens that are too young for any flea preventative, bathing them in a mild soap like Dawn or Joy can kill adult fleas. It won't prevent re-infestation so you'll have to keep up with flea control around your home and with your adult cats.
  • Ear mites‌: There are topical products available over-the-counter (OTC) and by prescription. Do not use OTC products without checking the label. For example, Hartz ear mite treatment is not safe for cats under 12 weeks of age. Revolution for kittens is safe starting at 8 weeks of age. If your kitten is younger than 8 weeks of age, talk with your veterinarian.
  • Tapeworms‌: Kittens with fleas may also have a tapeworm infection. For kittens 6 weeks of age and older, praziquantel is safe to use. But if proper flea control in the home environment doesn't occur, you can treat a kitten for tapeworms and reinfection can occur in a matter of weeks. Your veterinarian can best advise you on how to safely navigate treating a kitten with fleas and tapeworms.
  • Heartworm‌: Once an infected mosquito bites a cat, it takes 6 months before a blood test shows up positive. There is no approved treatment for heartworm in cats and treatment may involve multiple prescription medications.

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How do you prevent parasites in kittens?

Parasite control and prevention in kittens depends on their age.‌ Some products are not safe to use until a kitten is a certain number of weeks. For example, Revolution for Kittens is safe to use for flea and ear mite prevention after a kitten is 8 weeks of age.

When your kitten goes in for their first vaccination visit at around 8 weeks of age, your veterinarian can advise you on a year-round prevention plan for your pet based on their lifestyle and your area. Your veterinarian may have you bring a stool sample to this visit, for parasite testing.

If you have a cat who is pregnant, plan a visit with your veterinarian after the kittens are born and are 2 to 3 weeks of age in order to start routine deworming. It's also ideal to deworm a female cat prior to breeding. For a cat who is already pregnant, Panacur is generally considered safe to use but talk with your veterinarian first. It's best to avoid deworming a nursing cat because that can more readily cause parasites to be spread to the kittens through the mother's milk. Nursing cats should not be given a dewormer without veterinary supervision.

If you have a cat at home that has an intestinal parasite, keep the litter box scooped at least daily. You should also wash the litter box with hot soapy water once a week until the infected cat is cleared of parasites.

The bottom line

Kittens can be infected with various parasites, both internal such as worms, and external like fleas. They can get some types of worms from their mother, like roundworms and hookworms. Treatment for your kitten's parasite infection depends on what the parasite is, where it's located in your kitten's body, and how old your kitten is. Not all dewormers are safe for very young kittens. Your veterinarian can advise you on what is safe to use.

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