Ticks are dangerous parasitic creatures that can lodge themselves into your cat's fur and into its skin. Ticks can also carry several life-threatening diseases that can affect both you and your cat, including Lyme disease, tularemia, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. 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, chances are good that the cat will not become sick at all.
What Are Ticks on Cats?
Ticks are small, eight-legged, oval-shaped arachnids that vary in size between 1mm and 1cm long, depending on their age. They look like tiny spiders with a whiteish, egg-shaped body. This body becomes larger and darker as it fills with blood. Common in wooded areas and gardens, they can also be found in underbrush, hedges, and even lawns. While they are most common during the warmer months, they are active year-round.
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 big enough to spot. Run your hands over your cat’s body when they come 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.
Causes of Ticks on Cats
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 bite the cat's skin and begin harvesting blood. Ticks may remain attached to a cat for several days before they drop off; while attached to the cat, they often transmit microbes which can cause Lyme disease, babesiosis, or other illness.
Tick-Borne Illnesses in Cats
There actually are very few tick-borne illnesses that occur in cats, but the ones that do can be serious. Cats can get Lyme disease just like dogs and humans can, and if treated early, should fully recover. There's no Lyme disease vaccine for cats, however.
Another flea- and tick-borne illness in cats is feline infectious anemia. As with most varieties of anemia, it causes weakness and lethargy in cats. Treatment includes a course of antibiotics for several weeks.
Perhaps the most common tick-borne ailment that affects cats is tularemia. Again, there's no vaccine for this in felines. A high fever and loss of appetite are the most common symptoms in cats. Tularemia also is treated with antibiotics.
And finally, cytauxzoonosis is a serious 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.
Treating Ticks on Cats
Since ticks are very common, it's helpful to keep essential supplies on hand, including sharp-nosed tweezers, a small jar of rubbing alcohol, a disinfectant spray or creme, and surgical gloves. 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 the below steps:
- Use a comb to part the hair to 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 inject your cat with toxins.
- 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.
- Spray the area with the hydrocortisone spray to help alleviate irritation and itching.
- 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. They can test the tick for the presence of disease.
While ticks can be dangerous, taking action right away and removing it safely can save your cat's life. 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 his appetite or develops welts or rashes near the tick bite, he may have developed a disease from the tick and will require medical attention right away. Monitoring his condition and getting him to the vet as soon as possible can help minimize the impact of any illness.
How to Prevent Ticks on Cats
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. These include:
- "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, ticks can migrate to human beings or attach to human beings from the cat's fur. When that happens, pet-owners run the risk of contracting serious tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease or Babesiosis. These diseases, if caught early, can be cured—but in some cases, they can cause severe and chronic symptoms.
Tick Removal Misinformation
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, causing it to deposit even more toxins into the cat's tissues.
Don't use flammable liquids or ointments to try to get rid of a tick (more on this below) because it won't work and may make matters worse. Instead, use a proven method to safely remove the tick.