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My cat is shedding little yellow things all over the place. Does she have worms?

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Dear Sinéad, Siouxsie and Thomas:
I recently acquired a cat (I'm a dog person) and have never had to deal with worms before. My cat had worms and my dog got them too, so I treated them with a dewormer from the grocery store. Now I am noticing little (tiny) yellow hard balls all over my bed when I wake up in the morning. I know these are coming from the cat because the dog doesn't get on the bed (wish the cat wouldn't either, but oh well) and this never happened before I dewormed the cat. I haven't taken my cat to the vet yet because I'm assuming these are little dried up worms (yuck) and they will eventually go away. Have you ever experienced this before. I have no idea what I'm dealing with but really don't like having to wash my sheets every day not do I like the idea that I'm sleeping in these things! These little balls show up wherever the cat lays for long periods of time. Please help me!

Thanks,
~Sara

Sinéad: Sara, what you're seeing is almost certainly tapeworm segments.

Siouxsie: The good news is that tapeworms don't get transmitted from touching those worm segments. Even though they're really gross, you're not going to get worms if you accidentally touch them.

Tapeworm segments (image courtesy of ThePetCenter.com.Thomas: Tapeworm segments look like little grains of rice or sesame seeds, and sometimes they even move when they first come out of the cat! They're usually white when they first come out and turn yellow as they dry and are exposed to air. This photo (from ThePetCenter.com) shows what tapeworm segments look like and what size they are.

Sinéad: Actually, the article where we found that icky tapeworm segment photo is quite informative and educational, so we recommend you take a look at that when you've finished reading this column.

Siouxsie: Tapeworm infections are quite common in cats, particularly those cats who go outside and/or catch rodents. Tapeworm eggs get inside your cat when he or she swallows a flea during grooming activities or while eating a rodent. Fleas eat tapeworm eggs, and then when the flea gets into the cat's digestive system and is dissolved by the stomach acids, the egg is liberated and begins to grow.

Thomas: A cat with tapeworms may lose weight and be hungry all the time, because the worms are stealing all the nutrition from the food the cat eats. Other symptoms of tapeworm infections are diarrhea (sometimes with blood) and vomiting. Severe cases of tapeworm infestation can cause dry hair and general ill health. On the other hand, your cat could have tapeworms and have no symptoms at all, except for the appearance of those nasty tapeworm segments.

Sinéad: While it is true that some tapeworms are transmitted by eating undercooked meat (this is the main reason that humans get tapeworms, by the way), 99.99999 percent of cat and dog tapeworms are caused by eating fleas that have eaten tapeworm eggs. Humans could also get a tapeworm by swallowing a flea whole, but it's very rare that a human would get a flea in his or her mouth and then swallow it! Your opposable thumbs enable you to pick fleas off instead of nibbling them off like we have to when we get fleas.

Siouxsie: The other thing you need to know is that most wormers you get at grocery stores and pet stores will not kill tapeworms. Even those that say they're specifically for tapeworms are not going to be as effective as the wormer your veterinarian will give you.

Thomas: When we have to get wormed (and Mama just gave us worm pills last week -- yuck!), our vet gives Mama a medicine called Drontal. It's a broad-spectrum wormer that kills tapeworms, roundworms, and any other kinds of worms that might be living in our intestines. When you go to the vet, he or she will probably give your cat one dose of Drontal at the office and give you another dose to give your cat in two weeks.

Sinéad: The reason for the second dose is that it will kill any eggs that have hatched out since the first dose killed all the adult worms.

Siouxsie: In the meantime, you should completely clean out your cat's litterbox. Dump out the existing litter and wash it with a mixture of mild dish detergent and a bit of bleach in the water. This will disinfect the box as well as clean it. Make sure you get the bleach-detergent water all over the box (on the outside too), and then rinse the box very well to make sure no detergent or bleach residue remains. Once the box is dry, refill it with fresh litter, and you're ready to go.

Thomas: Another worm common to cats is the roundworm. Roundworms can lie dormant inside a cat's body for many years until a stress (such as pregnancy or injury) causes them to come to life and take up residence in the intestines. The roundworm larvae migrate into the developing fetuses through the mother's tissues. That's why a lot of kittens and puppies are born with roundworms and many vets suggest worming kittens and pups.

Sinéad: Symptoms of roundworm infection include a potbellied appearance and poor growth. The worms can be seen in vomit or stools and look like strands of spaghetti.

Siouxsie: We recommend that you bring a fecal sample with you when you take your cat to the vet. A microscopic examination will reveal worm eggs, and if there's anything else in there (such as giardia protozoa), your vet will be able to determine that, too.

Thomas: There are some common "folk remedies" -- such as feeding your cat raw garlic -- for treating worms, but these are often not very effective. Besides, good luck trying to get a clove of raw garlic down your cat's throat! There are also herbal remedies and such, but our advice is that if you want to get rid of your cat's worms, go to your vet and get the dewormer he or she recommends.

Sinéad: For more information about tapeworm prevention and flea control, you might want to read this article from our archives.

Siouxsie: Worms are a common, if rather gross, problem in cats. But they are easily dealt with and don't have to be a continuing issue. Good luck, Sara!

Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail us at advice@paws-and-effect.com. None of the material in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.