Ticks on Cats

Ticks spread diseases, so removing them safely is crucial

Orange cat outside
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Ticks are dangerous parasitic arthropods that can attach themselves into your cat's skin. Ticks are dangerous because they can transmit severe diseases that can affect both you and your cat and, if the infestation is heavy enough, can result in severe blood loss. It is essential to remove any ticks you spot on your cat's skin quickly and efficiently to minimize harm to your cat. If you remove the tick within 48 hours of it taking up residence on your pet, any transmission of disease from the tick are greatly reduced.

What Are Ticks?

Ticks are small, eight-legged, oval-shaped arachnids that vary in size between 1 millimeter and 1 centimeter long, depending on their life stage (adult versus immature nymph), species, and feeding status. They look like tiny dots with a round body and four pairs of legs sticking out. A tick's body becomes larger and darker as it feeds on blood from its host. Common in wooded areas and long grass, they can also be found in underbrush, hedges, and even lawns. They are most common during the warmer months.

Symptoms of Ticks on Cats 

Ticks can cause itching, but very often there are no overt symptoms until and unless your cat develops a tick-borne illness. Thus, the only "symptom" you may see is the presence of a tick on your cat.

Ticks are not always big enough to easily spot. Nymphs are extremely small and when just attached prior to feeding, can be hard to see. Run your hands over your cat’s body when it comes home for dinner each evening to check for any lumps or bumps. A tick will feel like a small bump on your pet’s skin. They tend to attach themselves to areas around a cat’s head, neck, ear, and feet.

Tick-Borne Illnesses in Cats

Compared to dogs and humans, tick-borne disease in cats is relatively rare. Cats can get Lyme disease just like dogs and humans, and if treated early, should fully recover. There's no Lyme disease vaccine for cats like there is for dogs.

Tularemia is another disease that can be transmitted to cats via ticks. Again, there's no vaccine for this disease in felines. A high fever and loss of appetite are the most common symptoms in cats. Tularemia is treated with antibiotics.

Cytauxzoonosis is another tick-borne illness that affects cats. Symptoms include anemia, fever, jaundice and difficulty breathing. This is a very serious, potentially fatal infection, and even if a course of antibiotics and intravenous fluids are administered in time, the cat may still die from cytauxzoonosis. This is another tick-borne illness for which there is no preventive vaccine available to cats.

Causes of Ticks

Ticks gain access to cats as they move through the outdoor environment, and quickly migrate from the fur to the cat's skin. There, they pierce the cat's skin and begin feeding on blood. Ticks may remain attached to a cat for several days before they drop off; while attached to the cat, they can transmit microbes which can cause the diseases described above.

Treatment

In some areas, ticks are very common. If your cat goes outside, it's helpful to keep essential tick-removal supplies on hand, including sharp-nosed tweezers, a small jar of rubbing alcohol, and a disinfectant. To minimize any chance of hurting your pet, having a partner to help hold him can help a great deal. 

Once you have your supplies and helper in place, follow these steps:

  1. Use your fingers to part the hair and expose the tick as much as possible. Using the tweezers, grasp the tick at the head, right where it enters the skin. Do not grab the tick by the body; if you do, you can break the tick in half, leaving its head embedded in the skin, where it can still transmit infectious disease. 
  2. Pull the tweezers steadily and firmly outward, without twisting or jerking. A smooth upward motion will ensure the tick comes out whole, without breaking apart. 
  3. Place the tick in the jar of alcohol to kill it.
  4. Swab the cat's skin around the bite wound with a disinfectant such as rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, or iodine.
  5. Wash your hands well with soap and water.

If Lyme disease or other ailments are prevalent in the area, do not throw the tick away or flush it down a drain. Instead, take the tick in a secured container to your veterinarian. She can help identify the tick and may be able to send it to a laboratory for further testing or identification.

After removing the tick and treating the affected area, monitor your cat's behavior, appetite, and skin for a few weeks.

If your cat is lethargic, loses its appetite or develops welts or rashes near the tick bite, it may have contracted a disease from the tick and will require medical attention right away. Monitoring its condition and getting it to the vet as soon as possible can help minimize the impact of any illness. 

You may have been advised to soak the tick on your cat with Vaseline, kerosene, or alcohol, with the idea being that the tick will "back out." However, this does not work. The tick will simply burrow deeper into your cat. 

How to Prevent Ticks

There are several good ways to prevent ticks on cats. The first is simply to keep your cat indoors; while this is not absolutely foolproof, it dramatically reduces the likelihood of ticks. There are also a number of preventive treatments available:

  • "Spot-on" treatments such as Advantage or Frontline
  • Tick collars
  • Tick and flea shampoos and powders
  • Tick dips

While all of these can be effective, none is absolutely foolproof. It's always important to be vigilant, particularly if your cat spends much time outdoors.

Is It Contagious to People?

If your cat brings in ticks, they may fall off after feeding and lay eggs in the house, resulting in an infestation. When that happens, pet-owners run the risk of contracting serious tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease. These diseases, if caught early, can be cured—but in some cases, they can cause severe and chronic symptoms.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.