Ticks are abundant in wooded and grassy areas where cats like to roam. When a cat passes vegetation where ticks congregate, the parasites climb onto the cat's fur and burrow down to attach to the cat's skin. Blood loss from ticks can be problematic in severe infestations, but the diseases carried by ticks are even more dangerous. Ticks transmit several blood-borne diseases that can cause life-threatening illnesses in both cats and humans. 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 its attachment, the risk of disease transmission from the tick is greatly reduced.
What Are Ticks?
Ticks are small, eight-legged, oval-shaped arachnids that vary in size from less than a millimeter to about a centimeter long, depending on life stage. Ticks feed on animals' blood by embedding their mouthparts in the hosts' skin. They remain attached until full of blood, then they drop off. The longer ticks stay embedded, the greater the chance they will transmit diseases such as Lyme disease. Ticks are most commonly encountered during the warmer months, from spring to fall.
Symptoms of Ticks on Cats
Ticks can cause itching, but very often there are no other overt symptoms until and unless your cat develops a tick-borne illness. Thus, the only "symptom" you may see is a tick on your cat.
Ticks are often too small to spot easily, and a cat's dense fur makes finding a tick even more difficult. Nymphs (a tick's youngest life stage) are extremely small and hard to see. Run your hands over your cat’s body each evening to check for any small bumps. A tick will feel like a small, movable nodule on your cat's skin. They commonly attach themselves to the skin on a cat’s head, neck, ears, 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 is no Lyme disease vaccine for cats.
Tularemia is another disease that can be transmitted to cats via ticks. Again, there's no vaccine for this disease in felines. High fever and loss of appetite are the most common symptoms in cats. Tularemia is treated with antibiotics.
Cytauxzoonosis (also called bobcat fever) 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 promptly, 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 the parasites quickly migrate through the fur to the 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 that can cause the diseases described above.
Diagnosing Ticks in Cats
Ticks are easily diagnosed on sight. The diseases they carry are more difficult to diagnose and may require blood tests for identification. Often, tick-borne diseases are diagnosed based on the known presence of a tick and subsequent symptoms of fever, lethargy, and generalized pain.
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 (or getting scratched yourself), ask a partner to help with restraint.
Once you have your supplies and helper in place, follow these steps:
- Use your fingers to part the hair and expose the tick as much as possible. Using the tweezers, grasp the tick 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 disease.
- 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.
- Place the tick in the jar of alcohol to kill it.
- Swab the cat's skin around the bite wound with a disinfectant such as rubbing alcohol or iodine.
- 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 for testing and 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.
Prognosis for Cats with Ticks
If a tick is removed within 48 hours of attachment, the risk of disease transmission is small, and the cat will suffer little more than an itchy bite, which should heal within a couple of weeks. Cats that contract a tick-borne disease may feel ill for much longer, even with proper treatment, and some will die despite treatment (particularly in cases of cytauxzoonosis).
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 foolproof, it dramatically reduces the likelihood of ticks. There are also several 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 preventatives can be effective, none is guaranteed, and any chemical treatment carries risks of side effects. It's particularly important to be vigilant, particularly if your cat spends a lot of time outdoors.
Are Ticks Contagious to Other Animals or People?
While ticks aren't contagious, they can migrate from a cat to other species. If a cat brings ticks indoors, they may fall off after feeding, remain in the house, and attach to another pet or human when ready to feed again.