Does Your Kitten Have Parasites?
What Are Parasites?
All animals, including humans, are susceptible to infestation with certain species of parasitic organisms. Parasites invade the organs of the host animal and live off the nutrition that the host takes in. They are capable of depriving the host of needed nutrients and can even interfere with important organ function. We see this when intestinal worms block the gastrointestinal tract, blood parasites cause red blood cells to be destroyed, or heartworms cause the lungs or heart to become diseased. All kittens are susceptible to a wide variety of parasites, and it is important to work with your veterinarian to make sure that your kitten gets the right to dewormers to keep it free of parasite-caused disease.
How Do I Know If My Kitten Has Parasites?
We can assume that all young kittens will have at least some parasites living inside or on the outside of their bodies. Roundworms are an extremely common internal parasite in kittens as young as four to six weeks of age. Other types, such as coccidia (a type of very small, a one-cell parasite called a protozoan) also occur frequently in young cats.
Some kittens that have parasites show signs of infestation, such as diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss, weakness, or dull, scruffy coat. Others do not show these signs, even though they have small numbers of parasites living within their bodies.
Your veterinarian may want to perform a test known as a fecal exam on the stool that your kitten produces to see if there are eggs or other stages of internal parasites being eliminated from the kitten’s body. With information from a fecal exam, your veterinarian can decide what kinds of dewormers to use to rid your kitten of these parasites. Even if the fecal exam does not show the direct evidence of parasites, your veterinarian will probably prescribe a broad-spectrum dewormer just to make sure that parasites aren’t a problem for your growing baby.
External parasites are usually more easily identified by visual inspection and good drugs are available for eliminating them. Let’s discuss the more common parasites your kitten may have:
Internal Parasites (Endoparasites)
Roundworms are the most common type of parasite that affects kittens. This is because kittens can become infested with the larvae (young stage) of this parasite when they nurse from their mother. The female cat (called a queen) will often have these larval stages of the roundworm within her body tissues as a result of infestation when she herself was a kitten. When she gives birth to her litter, these young roundworms leave her tissues and travel into the milk she produces. When the kitten’s nurse, the roundworm larvae pass to the kittens.
From the gastrointestinal tract of the kitten, the roundworm larvae burrow into the lining of the intestines and migrate to many different tissues of the infant’s body. Some of these larvae will go to the kitten’s lungs and be coughed up into the youngster’s throat and swallowed. Once again in the gastrointestinal tract, these larvae will mature to adults where they can cause serious disease. They reproduce and shed eggs into the kitten’s feces. When the feces pass to the outside, the worm larvae will develop further and can infect other cats after a period of additional development.
Cats of almost all ages can have tapeworms residing in their intestines. The cat becomes infested when it inadvertently eats a flea containing the infective larvae of the worm. Cats that do not have fleas cannot become hosts for tapeworms, so good flea control of the kitten and its environment is the best way to control this kind of parasite. You will know your kitten has tapeworms when you see small, ricelike white flecks in the kitten’s stool. Sometimes the “grain” of rice will even move as it leaves the cat’s body during a bowel movement.
Coccidia is tiny, one-celled parasites of the gastrointestinal tract of dogs and cats. The kitten picks up this disease from oral contact with coccidia-containing feces deposited by another infected dog or cat. Once in the gastrointestinal tract, the coccidia multiplies rapidly and begin to cause inflammation in the intestinal tissues. Serious, even bloody diarrhea is typical of heavy coccidia infestations in a young cat. Young cats become rapidly ill when they lose fluids and electrolytes during this disease process. It is even possible for a kitten to die from severe coccidian parasitism.
Like coccidia, giardia is a one-celled parasite that lives in the gastrointestinal tract of many different hosts. In kittens and some cats, this parasite can cause serious diarrhea. The organism can pass from one infected cat to another very quickly, usually through drinking water contaminated by an already-infected animal (dogs and humans can get this parasite, too) or from contact with contaminated feces. If a fecal exam shows the organism in your kitten’s stool, or if the signs of disease suggest this organism is present even if a fecal exam is negative for giardia, your veterinarian will prescribe an effective drug to rid your kitten of these disease-causing microorganisms. There is a vaccine available against this parasite but it is not widely used because of the ease of treating this parasitic condition compared to the risks of overvaccination of cats (see chapter 10 for more information on this).
Most cat owners would be surprised to learn that cats, like dogs, can get heartworms and the secondary disease in the heart and lungs that they cause. Just as in dogs, cats can develop an infestation with heartworms when a mosquito carrying the infective stage of the heartworm larvae injects those larvae into the cat during a bite. Unlike the dog, the cat is not a good host for the heartworm, so only a small percentage of cats that receive larvae will actually get adult worms in their hearts and lungs.
External Parasites (Ectoparasites)
Feline ear mites are tiny, crablike insects, related to spiders, which thrive in the ears of cats. Over time, these parasites cause serious inflammation in affected ears, resulting in a dark, powdery discharge. Often, a kitten with ear mites will shake its ears vigorously or rub and scratch at its ears. Clearly, these parasites cause lots of discomforts. They can spread rapidly from one cat to another, and even to dogs in the household. Left untreated, ear mites can cause serious damage to the fragile structures within the ear, and can even cause the eardrum to rupture. Mite infestation can also make it easier for bacteria and fungus to infect the ear, causing even more damage and discomfort.
The parasitic mites that cause the skin disease known as mange are related to the spiderlike creatures that infect the ears of cats (see Ear Mites). Like ear mites, they cause intense itchy discomfort for the kitten or cat. Mange mites burrow into the layers of the cat’s or kitten’s skin, causing obvious scaly, crusty areas, usually on the head of the cat. Your veterinarian will diagnose this disease by scraping an affected area and looking for the mite under the microscope. Sometimes it can be very difficult to find the mites if they have burrowed very deeply into the cat’s skin. In such a case, a skin biopsy may be necessary for diagnosis. There are different types of treatment for mange, from injections to dips, but all are effective in dealing with this group of parasites.
Everyone knows what fleas are. They are a problem parasite for virtually all mammals and were responsible for the deaths of millions of humans during the Middle Ages when the black plague spread throughout Europe. In those unenlightened times, almost all homes were overrun with flea-ridden rats. The fleas carried the plague bacterium and readily transmitted that bacterium to humans.
Ringworm is not really a type of worm, it is a fungus (called a dermatophyte) that infects the skin of many animals, cats and humans included. Areas of fungal growth on the cat often appear to be crusty rings, or circular bald spots, at least at first. The spores of the fungus spread to the cat from other animals or the ground or other contaminated surfaces. Ringworm spores are very resistant to environmental conditions and can live dormant for very long periods in the home or outdoors. Infected cats or dogs readily spread this parasite to other animals, even people.
Ticks are parasites that are related to spiders. Like fleas, they feed on the blood of mammals but, unlike fleas that hop on and off the host animal, ticks attach permanently to the host for long periods. Cats that live entirely indoors have no exposure to the wooded outdoor habitat of the tick, so they rarely acquire these parasites.
Ticks can transmit serious bacterial diseases such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. They can also cause uncomfortable skin irritation and inflammation in the infected cat. Once an attached tick begins to suck blood from a cat, it will appear to be a dark, blisterlike bump on the skin. If you are inexperienced in safely removing ticks from a pet, see your veterinarian for this. It is important to avoid leaving the mouthparts of the tick in the cat’s skin when it is removed, as these pieces of the tick will continue to irritate and can become infected.