Tick Infestation and Tick Prevention in Cats

Summary

Ticks are small, parasitic arachnids found worldwide year round. Ticks feed on the blood of their hosts which allows them to transmit diseases like tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Many tick-borne diseases are zoonotic, meaning they can be passed from animal to human.

Ticks do not transmit diseases immediately when they bite, so killing or removing ticks immediately upon discovery on a host is essential. Correct use of a veterinarian-recommended product to prevent ticks helps to reduce the likelihood of disease transmission, but these products do not work instantly and do not repel ticks. Inspect exposed cats on a daily basis so any ticks can be removed as quickly as possible.  Most tick bites do not result in the transmission of a disease. Tick-borne diseases have variable incubation periods, so it may take months before a cat shows signs of illness. Most cases of tick-borne illnesses are diagnosed without any known exposure to ticks. Finding a tick on a cat is not an emergency,  but cats covered in large numbers of ticks or showing signs like weakness, collapse, or labored breathing need emergency medical attention. 

Keeping cats away from tick-prone areas and using tick control products are the best ways to prevent tick infestations and transmission of tick-borne illnesses. Cats are especially sensitive to many common pesticides, so It is important to only use veterinary-approved medications.

Risk Factors

Ticks are prevalent worldwide and year round, with regional peaks in tick activity depending on seasonal weather conditions. Outdoor pets (and pets who have regular contact with outdoor pets) are at the highest risk of picking up a tick. It is uncommon to find ticks on indoor cats. 

While feeding on their hosts, ticks can transmit a variety of infectious diseases, so prompt removal or killing of attached ticks is essential. Some tick species may deliver a toxin that causes muscle paralysis, leading to weakness of the limbs and difficulty breathing. Pets with signs of weakness, paralysis, or respiratory difficulty need emergency medical attention.

Since ticks feed on the blood of their hosts, severe tick infestations can cause significant blood loss. The resulting anemia can be life-threatening. Cats covered in large numbers of ticks need emergency medical attention, particularly if they have pale gums, lethargy, and are breathing rapidly. 

Most tick bites do not result in the transmission of a disease. Tick-borne diseases have variable incubation periods so it may take months before a cat shows signs of illness. Most cases of tick-borne illnesses are diagnosed without any known exposure.

Possible Causes

Ticks can be found in temperate and tropical climates worldwide, and their habitat is increasing as the planet warms. Outdoor animals that are exposed to tick habitats are always at risk of picking up a tick. Frequent monitoring of outdoor pets and adherence to year round, vet approved preventative medication are the best, most effective ways to prevent a large scale infestation of ticks from occurring.

Tick-borne diseases are usually transmitted when the tick feeds on an infected animal, then feeds on another animal. Some diseases can be transmitted within 3-6 hours of tick attachment, so prompt removal of ticks is important.

Main Symptoms

The presence of ticks on cats is self-evident. Ticks cause only mild localized skin irritation when they bite. If tick-borne disease is transmitted while the tick feeds on the cat, symptoms associated with that specific disease won't occur until the required incubation period has passed.

Detailed Characterization

Ticks feed on their hosts until they are engorged and ready to progress to the next stage in their life cycle. This usually takes 3-6 days. When they are done feeding, they drop off and the remaining sore will subsequently heal, assuming no complications develop.

Testing and Diagnosis

Cats do not need to go to the vet if they have received a tick bite and have no other symptoms.

Testing cats for tick-borne diseases after tick exposure is unnecessary. Always monitor cats for symptoms of illness such as lethargy or lack of appetite. If the cat develops symptoms, seek medical attention. 

Similarly, testing the tick itself for infectious agents is unnecessary. Some commercial laboratories offer to test ticks for tick-borne disease for a fee. These tests are not recommended for several reasons:

• A positive result does not necessarily indicate that the infectious agent transmitted to the cat

• Negative results can provide a false sense of security, when another, unnoticed tick on the cat may have transmitted disease

• Test results are frequently delayed, and the pet will likely develop symptoms of infection before the results are returned

Steps to Recovery

Generally, finding a small number of ticks on a cat is not a concern. Prompt removal of any ticks from a cat is essential to prevent tick-borne illness. 

To remove a tick correctly, use tweezers to grasp the tick close to the skin and slowly pull upwards using steady pressure. Do not crush, twist or jerk the tick. Do not attempt to use matches, petroleum jelly, turpentine, nail polish, or rubbing alcohol on the tick to remove it.

After removal, clean the bite area with mild soap and water. Ticks can be disposed of by putting them in rubbing alcohol, sealing them in a container, wrapping them tightly with tape, or flushing them down the toilet.

Monitor the site of the bite for several days. Some swelling and redness is expected. In some cases, the bites may be itchy. A tiny dark spot in the center of the sore is common and does not indicate that the head of the tick is still in the wound. Ticks do not insert their heads into the skin when they bite. 

It can take up to a week for a tick bite to heal fully. If redness, swelling, or crusting gets worse or takes more than a week to start healing, the bite location may be infected. Consult with a veterinarian to see if treatment for infection is required.

Prevention

The most effective method of prevention is keeping cats away from tick-prone areas. These areas include:

• Wooded or forested areas • Long grass • Areas of dense vegetation

Outdoor environments can be modified to reduce tick populations. Strategies that may help include:

• Cutting grass short • Removing piles of brush or leaves • Removing plants that attract deer

• Applying acaricides to the perimeter of the outdoor area

• Building fences to discourage wild animals or stray dogs from entering the area

• Limiting outdoor activity during peak tick season (spring and summer)

A routine tick prevention medication is the best way to prevent ticks. It is important to only use cat-approved medications, as several of the anti-parasitic medications used in dogs are lethal to cats. 

Pets may bring ticks into the home, allowing them to feed on other pets or people. Several tick-borne diseases are zoonotic, making this a significant human health risk.Once indoors, ticks may establish an infestation, residing in cracks and crevices. Consultation with a pest control professional is recommended if significant populations of ticks are present in the home. Many pesticides are toxic to cats, so any pet cats may need to be relocated during fumigation of a house, if required.

Is Tick Infestation Common in Cats?

Tick bites are common in outdoor pets that have exposure to tick habitats. Large scale tick infestation is easily controlled with vet approved preventative medication and routine screening of all pets in the home.

Typical Treatment

Removal of ticks, preventative medication, routine screening, environmental controls

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