Roundworms are intestinal parasites that are common in cats. There are two species of roundworms that infect cats, one of which can cause health problems in humans, too.
Roundworms are round, up to four inches long, and white to pale brown in color (they look a little like spaghetti noodles). They hang out in the intestines, soaking up nutrients from the cat’s diet. The medical term for infection with roundworms is ascariasis.
The Roundworms and Their Life Cycles
- Seen commonly, especially in kittens
- Larvae can infect humans
- Complex life cycle
Toxocara cati Worms Can Infect Cats a Number of Ways:
- Kittens can ingest larvae through their mother’s milk
- Ingesting eggs (which hatch into larvae after being eaten)
- Eating rodents or other carriers (beetles, earthworms) who have been infected with the larvae
The roundworm larvae (including those that are swallowed and ingested as eggs, which then hatch) migrate through the body tissues, with most eventually reaching the lungs, where they make their way up the windpipe and are coughed up and then swallowed.
Once swallowed this time, the larvae then become adult roundworms in the intestines. These produce numerous eggs, which are passed in the feces. Eggs only become infective after weeks in the environment. The eggs are hardy and can remain infective for months or years.
Sometimes the larvae stop their migration in the liver, where they enter a dormant state. In a pregnant female, these larvae become active again, and the larvae can be secreted in the milk after birth. They can also produce an active adult roundworm infection in the mom’s intestines, so she then sheds numerous eggs that can also infect the pups.
Toxacara cati roundworms have a life cycle that makes them very effective at infecting kittens.
- Less common
- More often seen in older cats
- Usually, don’t infect humans
- Also seen in dogs
Toxascara leonina has a much more straightforward life cycle. The eggs are shed in the feces, and once ingested they develop into adult roundworms in the intestines (no migration required) that eventually shed more eggs. The eggs are only infective after several days to weeks in the environment. Rodents can also become infected with Toxascara leonina larvae, and cats can become infected from eating an infected rodent.
Signs and Symptoms of Roundworms
Roundworms (both kinds) can produce any of the following symptoms, although symptoms may only appear with heavy infections:
- Failure to gain weight or weight loss
- Dull hair coat
- Pot-bellied appearance
- Kittens will sometimes vomit up roundworms or pass them in their feces
- Sometimes coughing due to the larval migration through the lungs
Rarely, very heavy infections can lead to blockage of the intestines, which will make a kitten very ill (vomiting, lethargy).
Diagnosis of Roundworms
The eggs of roundworms are detected under the microscope in a routine check of a stool sample (the test process is called fecal flotation).
It is possible to tell the difference between the species of roundworm based on the appearance of their eggs. Of course, when roundworms appear in vomit or stool, the diagnosis is pretty clear!
Treatment is the same, regardless of the roundworm involved. There are a number of medications that can be used to treat roundworms, and your vet can help you pick the one right for your cat. Medications will only affect adult roundworms, however, so they need to be repeated to deal with any residual larvae as they mature (e.g., at 2-week intervals). The number of treatments necessary will depend on the age of the cat and the situation, which will be assessed by your vet.
If you have a pregnant cat, consult your vet for advice on deworming the mom and kittens. Once dewormed, many of the monthly medications designed for heartworm and parasite control contain medication that will prevent roundworm infections on an ongoing basis—options that can be discussed with your vet.
If your cat is not on one of these preventatives, your vet will recommend a regular deworming protocol to keep roundworms at bay. Cleaning up pet wastes promptly, and preventing pets from eating rodents can also help prevent infection with worms.
People and Cat Roundworms
The larvae of Toxocara cati roundworms can infect people, as well as cats. This happens when eggs are ingested. It is most common in children who may not practice the best hygiene and may pick up eggs on their hands when playing in the yard, for example. Good hygiene is important, clearly, in terms of hand washing practices and keeping cats out of areas where kids play, such as sandboxes, and keeping pet waste picked up.
The larvae don’t develop into adult roundworms in people, but the larvae migrating through the tissues can cause inflammation, especially in young children. Most cases are not serious, but in serious cases, organ damage is possible, as result of the migrating larvae (e.g., liver, lung, brain), and sometimes the larvae can reach the eyes, leading to visual disturbances and possibly blindness.
Migration of roundworm larvae through human tissues is called “visceral larva migrans,” while migration to the eyes is called “ocular larva migrans.” Proper prevention of a roundworm infection is important to prevent these human health problems.