Nasty, foot-long parasitic worms make leap from wildlife to U.S. domestic cats
Angry cat (Shutterstock)

A species of invasive, parasitic worm normally only found in wildlife has begun to infect domestic cats, say veterinarians. A bulletin from the Cornell University Press reported on Thursday that the foot-long Dracunculus insignis worm has been found in cats in the northeastern U.S. rather than in their normal hosts, raccoons and other wild mammals.

The Journal of Feline Medicine published a paper titled "First Report of Dracunculus Insignis in Two Naturally Infected Cats from the Northeastern USA" in its February issue. In it, Cornell University veterinarians discuss their findings with regards to the new cases.

"The cats that contracted the Dranunculus insignis worms likely ingested the parasites by drinking unfiltered water or by hunting frogs,” said the study's lead author, Araceli Lucio-Forster.

The parasites take up residence in an animal's gut where they live for up to a year before the females migrate to an extremity and erupt through the skin in the form of a blister. The worms do little direct harm to the host except for the shallow lesion where they come through the skin. However, secondary issues like infection and inflammation can pose a significant health risk to the animal.

Dracunculus worms are found all over the globe and infect a wide variety of host animals, incuding humans. Prior to a late 20th century global eradication effort, the guinea worm plagued humanity for centuries wherever water supplies were contaminated and sanitation was poor.

Prior to the new feline infections, Dracunculus insignis was only found in raccoons and other wild animals and, in some rare cases, dogs. The feline infections are the first of their kind ever documented.

There is no drug treatment for the worms, which must be removed surgically from humans and animals alike.

“Although rare in cats, this worm may be common in wildlife and the only way to protect animals from it is to keep them from drinking unfiltered water and from hunting," said Lucio-Forster. "In other words, keep them indoors."

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