Common Parasites In Kittens & Cats: Symptoms To Watch Out For

by Lila Batiari, DVM
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Common Parasites In Kittens & Cats
Learn how to spot signs of parasites in kittens so you can treat them quickly and reduce the risk of human transmission in your home.

Young cats are susceptible to various health issues, and kitten parasites are among the most common. If left untreated, parasitic infections can cause diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss, and other health problems that may negatively affect your kitten’s growth. Understanding the risks, symptoms, and available treatment options is very important.

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Two types of parasites can affect your kitten: internal and external. We’ll take a look at each of the common kitten parasites in the sections below.

Common Types of Internal Parasites In Kittens

Internal kitten parasites live in different parts of the feline’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract, heart, or lungs. The parasitic species can either be in the form of intestinal worms (such as roundworms and tapeworms) that can get up to several inches long in size or protozoan infections made up of microscopic, single-celled organisms like coccidia and giardia.

Internal parasites are a common health issue in cats — especially kittens — with a prevalence rate as high as 45% in some populations, according to Cornell Vet University.1 Here are some of the most common internal kitten parasites you should know about.

Roundworms

Roundworms (specifically, the species Toxascaris leonina and Toxocara cati) are the most common intestinal parasite in cats, with a prevalence of 25% to 75% among felines and a higher rate in kittens.1 These worms are transmissible through the mother’s milk, the feces of an infected cat, contaminated soil, and infected rodents.

Like roundworms in puppies, a substantial infestation in kittens can cause severe digestive upset, excessive gas formation, and a 'pot-bellied' appearance. It can also negatively impact the kitten’s growth and development.

Roundworms can also pose a health risk to humans who come into contact with contaminated feces. The sand in playgrounds for toddlers presents a potential hazard, as these areas are often affected by contamination.

Tapeworms

Kittens are most likely to contract tapeworms by accidentally ingesting infected fleas while grooming themselves. One of the most common tapeworms in cats, Dipylidium caninum, will not cause severe problems in adult cats but can result in digestive upsets and stunted growth in young kittens. You might also be able to spot these parasites in kitten poop, with mature tapeworms reaching anywhere between six and 23 inches in size.

The risk of tapeworm infection in humans is low, as transmission requires the accidental ingestion of an infected flea. Most reported cases of tapeworm in humans include children, so you should strongly consider preventative measures if you have young kids in the house.

Hookworms

Similar to the transmission of hookworms in puppies, kittens can become infected with hookworms through contact with contaminated feces, soil, or infected rodents. The infective hookworm larvae can enter the host animal by mouth or through the skin, particularly the feet, leading to secondary bacterial infection and eczema. Because hookworms attach to the small intestine’s lining and feed on blood, they can cause severe anemia in infected kittens.

Cat hookworms don’t infect humans internally. However, hookworm larvae can affect the human skin, causing a disease called cutaneous larval migrans (CLM), also known as 'ground itch'.

Heartworms

The only way in which a cat can get feline heartworm disease is through a mosquito bite. When an infected mosquito pierces a cat's skin, it allows entry of heartworm larvae into the bloodstream. These larvae mature and ultimately travel to the heart and lungs. They are not transmissible to humans from felines — only from mosquitos.

The symptoms of heartworm parasites in kittens and cats are non-specific. Feline heartworm disease can cause vomiting, weight loss, coughing, and rapid breathing. The condition may be fatal because there is no treatment for heartworm in felines; in some cases, death may occur suddenly in infected kittens and cats with no other symptoms.

Cryptosporidia

Cryptosporidia are protozoan parasites that cause an infection known as Cryptosporidiosis, typically in kittens younger than six months of age. Transmission occurs through infected feces, and although felines with healthy immune systems tend to recover quickly and may never show symptoms of infection, the disease can be fatal for young kittens and cats with compromised immune systems. Symptomatic felines may exhibit fever, diarrhea, and decreased appetite.

Humans can become infected with Cryptosporidia through direct or indirect contact with infected cat feces, and immunocompromised individuals are at a greater risk of infection.

Giardia

Giardia is a protozoan parasite that commonly affects young kittens and adult felines with weakened immune systems. Many cases of giardia in cats are asymptomatic, but some clinical signs indicate infection, such as chronic diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss, and decreased energy. In more severe cases, kittens will become lethargic, dehydrated, and exhibit poor body condition.

Giardia is highly contagious among cats and transmissible to canines, which helps explain why giardia in dogs is also common. The strain that affects humans is not the same as felines, but it is always better to take the necessary precautions.

Coccidia

Coccidia is a parasite spread by accidental ingestion of sporulated oocysts (the infectious life stage of protozoan species) living in infected feces, or food or water contaminated with feces. Coccidia usually causes more clinical signs in kittens than in healthy adult cats because kittens have weaker immune systems. The most common symptom is mucusy, watery, and sometimes bloody diarrhea. A severe coccidia infection in kittens can cause extreme weakness, whereas coccidia in puppies can even be fatal.

The most common species of coccidia found in cats, Isospora felis and Isospora rivolta, are not zoonotic, meaning they don’t infect humans. However, some of the less common species are potentially infectious.

Types of External Parasites In Cats

External kitten parasites live on the skin or in and around the ears. The most common external parasites in kittens include fleas, ticks, and ear mites.

Ear mites

Ear mites in cats are a common source of ear irritation, especially among outdoor cats. These parasites feed on wax and dead skin inside the feline’s ears, resulting in ear discharge that appears black and dry, sometimes with a foul odor. Affected kittens will usually shake their head or scratch their ears excessively, making them red and inflamed. Although rare, cat ear mites can transmit to humans.

Fleas

If your pet is constantly itching, chances are they have fleas. Fleas are microscopic parasites that feed on the kitten’s blood, causing extreme itching and skin inflammation that often lead to scab wounds. In the case of severe infestation, fatal anemia may occur. Fleas can also affect humans; once they enter your home, they’re challenging to eradicate.

Ticks

Ticks transmit several diseases such as Lyme, tick fever, ehrlichiosis, and babesiosis. The parasites tend to attach to kittens when they walk in woodland or grassy areas, but they’re also present in many backyards. Ticks can also bite humans, but you will rarely 'catch' one directly from your cat.

Kitten Parasite Symptoms

Intestinal parasites in kittens usually cause relatively nonspecific symptoms, such as:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Coughing
  • Bloody or mucousy feces
  • Decreased appetite
  • Potbellied appearance

Diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, and anemia caused by intestinal parasites can weaken the kitten, making them more susceptible to other diseases and infections.

Kitten Parasite Treatment

Your vet will be able to prescribe the best parasite treatment for your kitten and provide you with guidelines on parasite prevention. Felines at risk of re-infection may benefit from routine deworming on a regular basis. Flea control will help to avoid tapeworm infection, and heartworm prevention for cats is now safe and effective thanks to the availability of preventative therapies.

Intestinal Parasite Treatment For Kittens

If you notice kitten stomach parasites, be sure to seek veterinary care as soon as possible. Treatment will depend on the type of parasite affecting your kitten. The medication for kitten parasites is also dose-dependent and should be determined by your veterinarian.

Kittens should be dewormed at two, four, six, eight, and twelve weeks. After this, they can be treated with a dewormer every three months.

External Parasite Treatment For Kittens

Kitten flea treatment is a multimodal approach as fleas will not only be found on your kitten's body but also in their environment. Your kitten and all other pets in the household will need to start on a year-round preventative. Treatment for cat ear mites often calls for the same or similar topical medication you would use to treat fleas.

If your cat has a tick, the first step is to safely remove it and then apply a disinfectant or antibiotic ointment like Neosporin from your pet first aid kit. Even if you have an indoor cat, it is crucial to protect them from tick bites with a suitable tick preventive. It should be noted that many products that kill ticks, particularly ones made for use on dogs, can be toxic to cats. Ask your vet to recommend the best preventive product designed especially for cats.

By signing up your kitten for pet insurance, you can get reimbursed for up to 100% of the treatment cost for parasitic infections. Some pet wellness plans also cover the cost of preventative therapies to ensure your pet’s ongoing well-being.

Pawlicy Advisor can help you find the best cat insurance plan for your new kitten in just a few minutes. Start comparing quotes from top providers and get personalized plan recommendations using the button below.

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Key Takeaways

  • Kittens are more susceptible to parasitic infections than adult cats due to their weakened immune systems. The most common parasites that affect kittens include tapeworms, roundworms, coccidia, and giardia, as well as external parasites like fleas, ticks, and ear mites.
  • Kittens with parasites in their gastrointestinal tract usually exhibit symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, lethargy, etc. External parasites, on the other hand, can cause symptoms like excessive scratching, poor coat appearance, skin infections, and bacterial infections.
  • You can lower the risk of your kitten suffering a severe parasitic infestation by using preventive medications prescribed by your vet and learning to recognize the symptoms. A fecal exam is a safe and non-invasive way to screen for parasites.

FAQs on Parasites in Kittens

Can a kitten be born with parasites?

Kittens are often born with worms or become infected within the first few weeks of life — particularly in the case of roundworms, which are passed on through the mother's milk.

How do you know if your kitten has parasites?

You should watch for symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, bloating, and visible worm segments or whole worms in your kitten's feces or around their anus. However, since these symptoms are non-specific, only a vet can determine whether your kitten has parasites and prescribe adequate treatment.

What do parasites look like in kittens?

Parasite lends its name from its shape. Some worms are visible to the naked eye in cat poop (for some infections). You may see whole worms, parts of worms, or worm eggs in your kitten's vomit, poop, or around the anus. Intestinal worms can be a serious problem for young kittens due to their weak immunity.

Can humans get kitten parasites?

Certain zoonotic parasites that affect felines, including roundworms and hookworms, can also cause disease in humans. Children are particularly at risk due to their higher likelihood of contact with soil contaminated by infected cat feces.

Can parasites kill a kitten?

While parasites are rarely serious in adult cats, they could lead to possibly fatal intestinal blockage in young kittens. Fleas may also cause fatal anemia if the infestation is severe.

How much does it cost to test for kitten parasites?

The typical cost for pet fecal tests ranges from $25 to $45.

How do you get rid of parasites in kittens?

Worms are often treated with prescription parasite medicine for kittens that are available through your vet and administered according to the type of worms diagnosed. There are also several OTC dewormers and medications available which are often recommended by vets.

Resources

  1. Cornell U Vet Med, "Gastrointestinal Parasites in Cats" Accessed June 28, 2022.
  2. VCA Hospitals, "Internal Parasites in Cats" Accessed June 28, 2022.
Veterinarian Lila Batiari

About the author

Lila Batiari, DVM

Small Animal Relief Veterinarian -

Lila Batiari, DVM is a relief veterinarian located in San Diego, California. She has a special interest in nutrition, pain management, and surgery! Dr. Batiari enjoys working with Pawlicy Advisor to help others avoid everyday situations that some of her clientele experience. She realizes that expensive vet bills for treatment costs could be much easier for patients with pet insurance.

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