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Pet Owner Version

Ticks of Cats


Karen A. Moriello

, DVM, DACVD, Department of Medical Sciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Reviewed/Revised Aug 2018 | Modified Oct 2022
Topic Resources

Ticks are blood-sucking parasites that attach themselves to animals and people. As they feed, ticks can transmit diseases, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Q fever, and Lyme disease. Ticks also release toxins that can harm their hosts. Skin wounds caused by ticks can lead to bacterial infections. Severe tick infestations can lead to anemia and death.

Technically, ticks are not insects. They are arachnids and are related to spiders and mites. There are numerous species of ticks belonging to 3 biological families. The Ixodidae family (commonly known as “hard” ticks) contains more than 600 species. The next largest family, the Argasidae (“soft” ticks), contains about 185 species. Notably, many hard ticks spend >90% of their lifetime off the host. Ticks have 4 life stages—egg, larva, nymph, and adult. Ticks can survive from several months to several years without food if environmental conditions permit.

Ticks can be found worldwide. Some ticks prey on specific animals, though other species can prey on many species of animals, including humans. Blood-sucking behavior is different depending on the species. Ticks are much less commonly found on cats than on dogs. However, cats that spend time outdoors, especially in wild areas, are often affected.

Diagnosis is by appearance of tick bite marks on the animal or the presence of the parasite. Ticks that have been on an animal only a short time (an hour to a few days) appear flat. Ticks that have been on an animal for days appear much more rounded due to the blood they have consumed.

Ticks should be removed as soon as possible to minimize disease and damage. To do this, use tweezers to carefully grasp the tick close to the skin and pull gently. Never try to remove a tick with your bare hands, as some tickborne diseases (for example, Rocky Mountain spotted fever) can be immediately transmitted through breaks in the skin or contact with mucous membranes. The use of hot matches to remove ticks should also be avoided. Infested cats can be treated with anti-tick insecticides that kill larval, nymph, and adult stages. These can be given as spot-on solutions (which are applied on the back and spread rapidly over the entire body surface), sprays, and dusts. Care should be taken in selecting the correct anti-tick product. Some products work well on dogs but are dangerous for cats. Contact your veterinarian for a prescription or a recommendation for the best tick control product for your pet.

If your cat is severely infested with ticks, you should take it to a veterinarian for tick removal. Heavy infestations will not only severely damage the skin, but can also cause anemia, paralysis, or other complications. Your veterinarian is in the best position to provide a heavily infested cat with the care it needs. A clinic stay for such pets may be likely. Even if your pet has acquired only a few ticks, you should have your pet checked for the many diseases spread by these parasites. Monitor the site(s) from which you have removed ticks. If a tick bite turns red or swollen, a prompt trip to the veterinarian is warranted.

Keeping animals away from tick prone areas is the most effective step you can take to control exposure. Most ticks live in particular microhabitats, such as tall grass or the border between wooded areas and lawns. Cleaning and clearing of these microhabitats reduces the number of ticks. Removing tall grass and weeds and trimming vegetation from your property can help protect your animal. Insecticide treatment of vegetation can slightly reduce the risk of ticks. However, it is not recommended for wide use because of environmental pollution and the cost of treating large areas.

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