- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Ticks. The very word has me grimacing in revulsion. And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way about ticks. Sure, fleas are annoying and can cause problems if your cat or dog has a flea bite allergy, but as far as external parasites go, ticks are in a class by themselves.
There are many species of ticks—dozens in the continental U.S. alone. While some are somewhat species-specific (for instance, the winter tick prefers large game animals like deer, moose, and elk), any of them will bite any mammal, including cats.
You can ask your vet if ticks are endemic to your geographical area and if they are commonly seen on cats or dogs. Dogs are perhaps better known for becoming tick hosts, as they run through the brush and tall grasses where ticks live, waiting for a warm mammal to walk by. But cats are vulnerable, too, and can suffer just like the rest of us with the potential consequences.
Ticks bite cats (and dogs, and humans, and wildlife) in order to feed and move through the various phases of their life cycle, from the larval stage to nymph to adulthood. An adult female needs to ingest blood to mate and lay the thousands of eggs that will develop into the next generation of ticks.
The problem with ticks isn’t the bite itself, although that’s nasty enough, but the many illnesses they carry and can pass on to your cat. If the tick is carrying an infectious disease, the pathogens will enter your cat’s bloodstream and quickly begin to reproduce.
Most of us are familiar with Lyme disease and the fact that ticks are the vector that passes on this very serious condition. If left untreated, Lyme disease can cause joint damage, cardiac issues, kidney disease, and even neurological symptoms. Fortunately, cats are very resistant to the bacteria that cause Lyme and only rarely show signs of the disease.
But there are dozens of diseases that are just as (or more) serious. According to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, tick bites can transmit Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Rabbit Fever (tularemia), feline babiosis, ehrlichiosis, Powassen encephalitis, and hemobartonellosis, to name a few.
Symptoms for most of these tick-borne diseases in cats include fever, anemia, and weight loss. Two tick-borne diseases that might cause other symptoms in your cat are hemobaronellosis and tularemia.
Hemobaronellosis is fairly common and is caused by a bacterial parasite that attacks a cat’s red blood cells and can cause life-threatening levels of anemia. Pale gums, lethargy, loss of appetite and rapid or open-mouthed breathing are the symptoms.
Tularemia is more common in rabbits and rodents (hence the name Rabbit Fever) but is sometimes seen in cats. In addition to ticks passing it on, your cat can acquire this bacterial infection by catching and eating an infected rabbit or rodent. In addition to fever, your cat can develop enlarged lymph nodes and internal abscesses.
These are just a few of the reasons ticks give me the heebie-jeebies. An internet search will bring up dozens more. So, as we head into prime tick season, keeping ahead of ticks is paramount to your cat’s health and well-being. The old saying is true: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Or, in sports parlance, the best defense is a good offense.
One of the easiest and best ways to keep your cat safe, healthy, and free of ticks is to keep them indoors. An indoor cat is more likely to live to a ripe old age, compared to an indoor/outdoor cat, for this very reason. In addition to tick-borne disorders, the list of feline dangers outdoors is long, with cars and wild animals seemingly out to get every one of your cat’s nine lives.
For preventing a tick bite, there are many products to use, from external spot treatments to oral medication prescribed by your vet. Flea and tick powders, sprays, and even collars can all be used to both repel and kill ticks on your cat.
Be careful with any over the counter products you purchase. Be sure the product you use is approved for use on cats, and use only the in the manner and amount recommended. Talk with your veterinarian about products that work in your area and are safe for use on cats.
If ticks are a problem in your area, keeping garden shrubs and grasses neatly trimmed will provide fewer hiding places for ticks.
Treating the yard and garden with products designed to kill and/or repel ticks can be helpful, but these products are often toxic to the environment—and your pets—so research them fully and speak with your veterinarian if you have any concerns.
Remember that cats groom themselves and can ingest products that brush against their fur. Keeping away ticks at the expense of illness isn’t an improvement. If your property is infested, consider hiring a professional exterminator.
If your cat is an indoor/outdoor cat, or a barn cat earning his living by keeping your farm free of mice and rats, he’s especially susceptible to acquiring ticks. Even if he’s on a tick preventative or wears a flea and tick collar, check for ticks at least once a day.
To check for ticks, smooth your hands over his fur and run a comb through it, stopping at any unusual bumps. Ticks are commonly seen around the face, ears, and around the mouth. Ticks also like to hide in tucked away in areas like under the legs (“armpit” area), between the toes or under the chin. If your cat wears a collar, be sure to check around and beneath the collar, too.
If you find a tick on your cat it’s important to remove it immediately. If a tick has been on your pet for less than 24 hours, the transmission of any tick-borne disorder is very small.
According to PetMD, the best way to remove a tick is fairly simple. Part the fur around it and grab it at the base with a pair of tweezers, being careful not to pinch the tick’s body. Pull it straight out—do not twist—slowly, and then kill the tick by putting it in rubbing alcohol.
Do not squash the tick with your fingers, and it’s wise to wear gloves, as ticks can transmit diseases to humans. Once it’s dead, dispose of the tick.