Ticks are parasites that feed on mammals, including cats, dogs, and humans. There are many varieties of ticks; some types may carry infectious diseases and others produce neurotoxins that can poison the tick’s host. While cats rarely develop tick-borne illnesses, they can act as reservoirs for these infections. Read on to learn more about ticks and your cat, including answers to questions like:
It is important for cat owners to be able to identify and safely remove ticks from their cats, especially if they live in endemic areas with large tick populations. Removing ticks safely and promptly reduces the risk of infection.
Ticks are small, parasitic arachnids that ingest blood meals from their hosts. They can affect cats, dogs, humans, and many other animals, and are very common in North America. When they are attached to a cat, ticks look and feel like small dark bumps on the skin. Tick bites create an inflamed sore, often with a small amount of crusty, scabby debris around it. You can check your cat for ticks by firmly running your fingers over your cat’s entire body to check for abnormal bumps, scabs, and sores. You can also gently scratch a cat’s skin and check any location where your nail catches on.
To remove a tick, grasp the tick with tweezers or a tick removal tool at the skin surface, firmly pull straight outward until the skin tents, and wait for the tick to release. Gently wash the area of the tick bite with soap and water after removing the tick. Do not use other methods such as petroleum jelly, baby oil, or a lit match as these removal methods do not work and can cause more damage. Do not twist or crush the tick and always wear gloves during removal to prevent the spread of tick-borne illness to yourself. An online vet can show you how to remove ticks from home.
Tick-borne diseases are rare in cats, especially in North America and the UK. Cats are naturally resistant to most tick-borne diseases and rarely show symptoms when they are infected. Even though cats rarely develop symptoms of tick-borne illnesses, tick prevention for cats is still an important tool in reducing spread of tick-borne illness to other animals, including humans. If a cat picks up an infectious agent from a tick, it can pass the illness to other animals indirectly if it is bitten again in the future. Cats living in areas with high levels of tick activity are more likely to become indirect vectors of tick-borne illness. “Cats can still get infected with tick-borne pathogens that cause bartonellosis, babesiosis, Lyme disease, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but they usually don't get sick," says Jo Myers, a Vetster veterinarian. "Even though tick-borne diseases in cats are rare, they can be fatal, so regular use of prevention for at-risk cats is important."
Most tick bites in cats don’t cause lasting problems and the resulting sore usually heals within a couple of weeks, but occasionally a tick bite gets infected. Young kittens with heavy tick infestations can also develop life-threatening anemia from blood loss. Cats who take monthly tick treatments have a reduced risk of acquiring a tick-borne illness and passing it indirectly to other animals.
The treatment of tick infestations in cats involves the removal of all ticks. Supportive care, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatories can help if a tick bite gets infected. Antibiotics have no effect on ticks themselves, so tick prevention is necessary to prevent future infestations. A blood transfusion may also be needed if a cat is severely anemic after a heavy infestation.
A veterinary visit is not necessary after removing a few ticks from a cat. If ticks are a recurring problem, an in-person or virtual visit can help cat owners choose a tick preventative that will be safe and effective for use on a cat.
Outdoor cats are the most likely to get ticks due to their increased exposure, but indoor cats can be affected as well. Ticks hide in long grass, brush, and wooded areas, and grab onto a cat passing by. Though it is uncommon, if carried indoors by the pet parents or other pets in the home, ticks can hide on the floor and climb onto an indoor cat.
Oral medications, topical solutions, and tick collars are available as tick-preventative medications to protect your cat from multiple tick species. All cats in high-risk areas need prevention. Year-round prevention is best, especially in endemic areas. It is critical that cat owners avoid products that contain permethrins, pyrethrins, and pyrethroids as active ingredients as these are highly toxic and dangerous for cats. These products should not be used on dogs in the home either, since this also poses a risk of exposure to cats in the household. To consult a veterinarian about the best tick prevention for your cat, you can book a virtual care appointment.
Tick-borne illnesses are rare in cats because they are naturally resistant to most tick-borne diseases and toxins. Even though they’re rare, tick-borne diseases can be fatal to cats, so prevention is still important. Regular use of a tick preventive may also prevent the skin sores, irritation, and potential for infection associated with tick bites.
Tick-borne illnesses are rare in cats, and cats who are infected often do not show symptoms. For cats who do develop an illness with symptoms, it takes weeks or months after the tick bite for symptoms to appear.
A vet visit is not necessary after removing a small number of ticks from your cat. If ticks are a recurring problem, consider discussing tick prevention medication with a veterinarian for your cat. Consult a vet if your cat develops skin irritation, signs of infection, or has a heavy infestation of ticks.
Use tweezers or a tick hook to grasp the tick close to the skin surface and pull the tick firmly outward without twisting or crushing it. The tick will release its bite. Do not use petroleum jelly, alcohol, baby oil, or a lit match. These methods do not work and can cause more damage to your cat.
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