Ticks on Cats: How to Spot and Remove Them
Ticks are among the peskiest parasites that affect our feline friends. While they are certainly more common on domestic dogs (for a variety of reasons we’ll explore), cats are still at risk for getting ticks and dangerous tick-borne diseases.
Ticks are typically found in wooded areas, hiding in brush and tall grasses. They wait for a host to pass by, and when an opportunity presents itself, they will make a human or animal body their new home. Eventually, they attach themselves to a host’s skin and bury their heads under it in search of what’s called a “blood meal” (which is exactly what it sounds like).
In the process of feasting, ticks with pathogens in their saliva can transmit them to their host. A tick needs to be attached for about 24 hours for a pathogen to transmit to a cat, says Dr. Diane Delmain, an associate professor at the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine.
In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know about ticks on cats, including how to remove and prevent ticks, lessening the chance of disease transmission.
Can Cats Get Ticks?
Yes, cats can definitely get ticks. Research published in 2016 suggested that nearly 19 percent of free-roaming cats in the central U.S. that were examined had ticks, and the cats with tick infestations had an average of nearly three ticks each on their bodies.
Of course, indoor-only cats will have a lower rate of incidence, but they’re not immune from ticks. Most commonly, a human or indoor-outdoor animal, like a dog, brings the tick in on their body, and the tick decides that the resident feline is a more desirable host.
Dr. Delmain says cats are also less likely than dogs to be affected by ticks because they are fastidious groomers. “Many cats will groom ticks off, but some can be hard to find or reach, like those in their armpits or thighs,” she says. “While we don’t know of any cats who are genetically predisposed to tick attraction or attachment, those who have a harder time grooming than others because of age or weight may have a harder time removing them.”
Dr. Bruce Kornreich, the director of the Cornell Feline Health Center at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, adds that for similar reasons, long-haired cats may have a more difficult time removing ticks via grooming than their short-haired counterparts.
“We want all cat owners to be diligent, but it’s reasonable to recommend that people with cats with long hair should pay extra special attention and feel through all that fur and all the way down to the skin when checking for ticks,” he says.
Dangers of Ticks for Cats
A primary concern about ticks affecting cats is the increasing prevalence of these pests, due in large part to the effects of climate change. “Ticks are spreading across the country and are more prevalent in places that didn’t used to have them,” Dr. Delmain says. Tick season is also starting earlier and lasting longer, according to Dr. Kornreich.
But perhaps the most familiar tick-related danger – Lyme disease – is not something that impacts cats the way it does humans and dogs. “Cats seem to be pretty resistant to Lyme disease for reasons we don’t completely understand,” Dr. Kornreich says. “Generally speaking, they’re not nearly as susceptible as dogs and people.”
Instead, a disease called cytauxzoonosis (aka bobcat fever) is “the big, bad one” that most concerns veterinarians, according to Dr. Delmain. “Ten years ago, I would have said that all cats who get it die,” she notes. “Now, it’s closer to 60 percent, but it’s a lot of work to save the other 40 percent.”
Cytauxzoonosis affects the red and white blood cells. Cats with it can get really anemic, Dr. Delmain says, but early signs of bobcat fever are often really non-specific. “It’s more the things you see with a lot of other diseases, tick-borne or otherwise, including lethargy and not eating,” she says. The disease often progresses rapidly. Cytauxzoonosis can cause high fever, jaundice, labored breathing, shock, coma, and death.
What Does a Tick Look Like on a Cat?
Different species of ticks have a few unique physical characteristics, but they all tend to follow the same general pattern of flat, round body with six to eight legs protruding off it. How many legs a tick has depends on their life stage, with larval ticks having six legs and more mature ticks having eight legs. After a blood meal, the tick’s flat body becomes engorged, and this makes it much easier to spot on a cat’s body, both by the eye and through touch, Dr. Kornreich says.
An engorged tick on a cat will be the size of a pea or slightly larger, Kornreich says. “It’s something most people would definitely recognize by feeling with their hands. People get freaked out, but ticks are much more difficult to identify before they’ve taken a blood meal.”
For this reason, brushing or petting your cat regularly will help you spot and remove ticks, and deal with any potential ill effects more quickly and easily. Plus, time may be of the essence in these situations because the earlier you remove the tick, the lower the risk of disease transmission.
Other Symptoms of Ticks on Cats
There aren’t necessarily any other inherent symptoms of a tick on a cat besides potential skin irritation that comes with attachment, but there are a host of symptoms that may accompany the variety of tick-borne illnesses cat parents should be aware of.
Outside of cytauxzoonosis, Dr. Kornreich cites tularemia as one of the more concerning tick-borne diseases. Also known as rabbit fever, tularemia is found everywhere in the United States outside of the southwest and Rocky Mountains, he notes. “Cats can also be infected, and this causes lethargy, abdominal pain, vomiting, and liver problems, among other symptoms.”
Two more diseases worth knowing, Dr. Kornreich says, are anaplasmosis and hemotropic mycoplasmosis (which used to be known as haemobartonella). Both may cause severe anemia in cats, while anaplasmosis also causes enlarged lymph nodes and stiff joints.
In addition to the familiar symptoms of lethargy and poor appetite, those infected with anaplasmosis may also limp or have trouble walking, as well as pass dark or bloody stools. Rapid weight loss, white or pale coloring of the gums, and jaundice may also accompany symptomatic cases of hemotropic mycoplasmosis.
How to Remove a Tick From a Cat
Once you understand how to get rid of ticks on cats properly, it’s a pretty simple process. If a tick is attached, Dr. Delmain says, you can buy a “tick twister” if you don’t already have tweezers or forceps, which can also work for removal. Simply use one of these devices to grab the tick as close to its head as you can and pull it out with straight, steady traction.
“If you don’t have any of those,” Dr. Delmain says, “some will detach with soap and water on a cotton ball.” Once you have the tick fully removed from your cat’s body, you can kill it by putting it in a jar of rubbing alcohol. Dr. Kornreich adds that it’s best to kill ticks without touching them.
If you are concerned about removing a tick from your cat at home, your veterinarian or a veterinary technician can help with the procedure.
Monitoring Your Cat After a Tick Bite
Some tick-borne diseases will take time to develop, Dr. Kornreich says, so it’s important to monitor for common feline symptoms of illness, like lethargy, poor appetite, and weakness. Seek professional medical help for your cat right away if you see these.
Otherwise, neither Dr. Kornreich nor Dr. Delmain says it’s necessarily essential that you take your cat into the vet if you find and detach a tick. It’s more about what symptoms or changes you observe.
“Any time you see a cat with clinical signs, bring them to the vet promptly,” Dr. Kornreich says. “And you should always bring them in once a year, and cats older than ten years of age should make that visit twice a year.”
How to Prevent Ticks on Cats
“We have an amazing generation of tick preventatives right now,” Dr. Delmain says. “They will kill ticks within a couple hours of them getting on the cat, and because the tick-borne diseases need attachment to last for about a day to transmit, if a cat is on these medications, the ticks can’t attach long enough to spread the disease.”
These tick preventatives for cats are available as oral or topical medications. Dr. Delmain says there are also collars you can try that have similar positive effects as the other drugs, but it’s important to work with your veterinarian if you want to try any of these options. Your veterinarian can help you ensure that the tick collar is tight enough to be effective.
Dr. Kornreich adds that it’s also good to keep tick populations down on your property or anywhere you or your animals roam. “We recommend cats stay indoors, but if you allow them outside, there’s reason to expect that if a lawn is well-mowed, it’s less likely for ticks to be found there because they like places that are wooded and have tall grasses.”