Tapeworms Without Fleas. Why Does My Cat Keep Getting Infected?


Tapeworms are intestinal parasites that can infect cats. The most common tapeworm found in cats is called Dipylidium caninum. This parasite uses fleas as an intermediate host, meaning fleas ingest the tapeworm eggs, the eggs develop into larvae inside the flea, and then cats become infected with tapeworms when they swallow an infected flea during grooming.

While fleas are the most common way for cats to get tapeworms, cats can sometimes get tapeworms even without fleas. This occurs when cats ingest infected rodents or rabbits. So hunting and predation behaviors can put cats at risk of tapeworms even when no fleas are present.

Tapeworm infections are usually not harmful, but can sometimes cause digestive issues or weight loss in cats. Knowing how cats get tapeworms without fleas can help cat owners understand the infection risks and how to prevent it.

How Cats Get Tapeworms

Tapeworms are spread when a cat ingests infected fleas or rodents. Cats contract tapeworms by hunting and ingesting infected rodents like mice or rats. Tapeworm eggs live inside rodents, and when a cat eats an infected rodent, the tapeworm eggs are released inside the cat’s intestines where they hatch and grow into adult tapeworms. This allows the tapeworm life cycle to continue and spread (Source).

Outdoor and indoor/outdoor cats that hunt rodents are especially at risk for ingesting tapeworm eggs this way. Cats don’t have to ingest fleas to get tapeworms if they are catching and eating infected rodents. The tapeworm eggs can be spread directly through consuming rodent organs or tissue (Source). So tapeworm infection in cats can occur even without the presence of fleas.

Hunting Rodents

Cats are natural born hunters with strong predatory instincts. They are frequently motivated to hunt small prey like rodents even when well-fed. According to research, the average outdoor domestic cat kills between 1-5 rodents per day, adding up to a median of 14 rodents killed per year (George 1995). While another study found that cats do not significantly control urban rat populations (Cavendish 2018), they do regularly hunt and kill mice, voles and other small rodents as part of their natural hunting behavior.

Despite propaganda that cats make good “mousers,” their success rate of kills per hunt is estimated around 30% for rodents (RSPB 2020). However, cats persistently hunt rodents and eventually ingest infected prey, putting them at risk of contracting tapeworms like Taenia taeniaeformis which use rodents as an intermediate host.

Cats primarily hunt rodents out of instinct, not because they are effective at controlling populations. But during these frequent hunting forays, cats will invariably catch and ingest rodent prey carrying tapeworm larvae. For cats with outdoor access, ingesting infected rodents is the main route of tapeworm transmission – no flea vector required.

Rodents Carry Tapeworms

Rodents such as mice and rats are common hosts and carriers of tapeworm larvae. When rodents come into contact with tapeworm eggs in the environment, the eggs hatch inside the rodent’s intestine and develop into larvae (Vet Cornell). These tapeworm larvae form cysts inside the rodent’s tissue and can survive for long periods.

Cats become infected when they hunt and eat rodents carrying tapeworm larvae. Once ingested by the cat, the cysts open up, releasing the tapeworm larvae. The larvae then attach to the wall of the cat’s small intestine using hook-like mouthparts and develop into adult tapeworms over 2-3 weeks (Wikipedia). This allows the tapeworm life cycle to continue, with the adult tapeworms residing in the cat’s intestines and shedding eggs that can infect other rodents.

Therefore, rodents serve as an intermediate host and carrier of tapeworm larvae. When cats eat infected rodents, the tapeworm larvae mature into adults inside the cat. This allows cats to get tapeworms without necessarily being exposed to fleas.

Ingesting Infected Prey

Cats commonly get tapeworm infections from ingesting infected rodents while hunting outdoors. Rodents like mice and voles can carry tapeworm larvae in their tissues. When a cat catches and eats an infected rodent, the tapeworm larvae are released inside the cat’s intestines and develop into mature tapeworms. This allows the tapeworm life cycle to continue without needing an intermediate flea host.

Specifically, rodents can become infected by ingesting tapeworm eggs shed in the feces of other infected animals. The eggs hatch into larvae inside the rodent and migrate into their tissues. Cats that hunt and eat these infected rodents then also ingest the larvae, completing the life cycle. So cats that hunt frequently have a higher risk of contracting tapeworms directly from their prey without involvement of fleas.

According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, “Fleas and rodents become infected by eating tapeworm eggs in the environment. These infected fleas and rodents serve as sources of infection for cats and dogs” (source). Controlling rodent populations and preventing cats from hunting infected prey can help reduce tapeworm infection risk.

No Flea Vector Needed

Unlike intestinal worms like roundworms or hookworms, tapeworms require an intermediate host to complete their life cycle. Typically, this is a flea that ingests tapeworm eggs from the environment. The eggs hatch into larvae inside the flea. When a cat hunts and eats an infected flea while grooming, the tapeworm larvae are released and mature into adults inside the cat’s intestines.

However, rodents like mice or rats can also act as intermediate hosts for certain tapeworm species. Rodents become infected by ingesting tapeworm eggs from the environment or feces. The eggs hatch inside rodents in the same way as fleas. When a cat hunts and eats an infected rodent, it can directly transmit the tapeworm larvae without needing an infected flea as the intermediate host.

This is why cats who hunt and eat rodents frequently may get reinfected with tapeworms even if they do not have fleas. The tapeworm life cycle can be completed and transmitted via infected rodents without requiring a flea vector. Keeping cats indoors or preventing them from hunting can break this rodent-cat transmission cycle and reduce tapeworm infections.

Outdoor Cats at Risk

Outdoor cats that hunt rodents are at a high risk of ingesting infected prey and contracting tapeworms as a result https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/tapeworm-infection-in-cats. Rodents such as mice and voles commonly carry tapeworm larvae in their tissue. When cats hunt and eat infected rodents, they ingest the tapeworm larvae which then mature into adults inside the cat’s intestines.

Unlike cats who get tapeworms from fleas, hunting cats do not need an intermediate host to transfer the tapeworms. They become infected simply by eating larvae-containing prey. This direct transmission is why outdoor hunting cats are prone to reinfection even after being dewormed. As long as they continue eating infected rodents, new tapeworms can establish in their gut https://vethelpdirect.com/vetblog/2023/10/01/worming-for-hunting-cats/. It’s important to provide regular deworming and check their stool for tapeworm segments.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Tapeworms are diagnosed through microscopic examination of the cat’s stool. Vets will look for tapeworm segments and eggs in a fecal sample from the cat. Tapeworm segments may also be visible around the cat’s anus or in its bedding or litterbox. A definitive diagnosis can be made by identifying the tapeworm species based on the appearance of the segments. Some vets may also perform ELISA testing on the stool to detect antigens specific to certain tapeworm species.

Treatment for tapeworms typically involves giving the cat a deworming medication containing praziquantel. Praziquantel causes the tapeworm to lose its grip on the intestinal wall and dissolve. The dead tapeworm is then passed in the stool. Common dewormers used include Droncit, Cestex, and Drontal. The medication is given as an injection or oral tablet. A repeat dose may be needed in 2-4 weeks to kill any newly hatched worms. It’s important to treat all cats in the household to prevent reinfection.

Some over-the-counter dewormers advertise effectiveness against tapeworms, but studies have shown these products are often ineffective. It’s best to have a vet prescribe cat-specific praziquantel to reliably eliminate an infection. Keeping the cat indoors and preventing it from hunting rodents can help prevent reinfection after treatment.

Prevention Tips

There are several ways cat owners can help prevent tapeworm infections in their cats:

  • Deworm cats regularly with medications like praziquantel or epsiprantel, as recommended by your veterinarian. These medications kill tapeworms and help prevent reinfection. Many monthly heartworm and flea preventatives also contain dewormers (Source).
  • Control rodent populations around your home and property. Eliminating mice and rats removes a key source of tapeworm transmission (Source).
  • Use flea control medications prescribed by your vet. This eliminates fleas which can be intermediate hosts for some tapeworm species.
  • Supervise outdoor time or keep cats indoors to prevent hunting and ingesting infected rodents or animals.
  • Clean the litter box regularly to remove feces which could transmit worm eggs.
  • Wash hands after handling cats or litter boxes to prevent accidental ingestion of eggs that could infect humans.

Following veterinary recommendations for deworming, flea control, and limiting outdoor roaming and hunting can greatly reduce a cat’s chances of acquiring tapeworms.


In summary, cats can commonly get tapeworm infections from hunting and eating infected rodents, even without fleas present. Tapeworm eggs are shed in rodent feces and can survive in the environment. When a cat ingests an infected rodent, the tapeworm larvae hatch inside the cat’s intestines and mature into adults. Outdoor cats that hunt are especially at risk. Diagnosis is made by finding tapeworm segments or eggs in the cat’s feces. Several dewormers are effective at killing tapeworms. Prevention involves controlling rodents, keeping cats indoors, and regular deworming.

The key points are that cats acquire tapeworms by eating infected rodents, so fleas are not required for transmission. Outdoor hunting cats are prone to repeated infections. While diagnosis and treatment are straightforward, prevention through rodent control and limiting outdoor access is ideal.

Scroll to Top