Ticks are common external parasites (ectoparasites) affecting cats in many areas of the world. Environments suitable for tick development include forest, grass and moorland vegetation, close to wild mammals or birds on which they can feed during their immature stages. Cats most commonly become infested with ticks when they are walking or hunting in these areas. Some specialised ticks can develop in kennel environments. The risk of tick bites may vary with the time of year; cats appear to be more at risk during the Spring and Autumn periods but this varies with geographical region and tick species. Ticks may cause several problems when they bite, many of which can be difficult and expensive to treat. For these reasons, if there is any risk, it is very important to use tick control and prevention.
What are ticks?
Ticks are small, blood-sucking arthropods related to spiders and mites. They require blood to complete their development, and acquire this through biting their preferred animal host. Ticks have well developed mouth parts that allow strong attachment to the skin for several days, as well as specialised saliva which allows them to feed on blood efficiently. The ticks seen on cats are usually adults. However, these adults have developed from immature tick stages that survive in the environment for several seasons/years.
What problems do ticks cause?
Ticks may cause several problems when they bite:
They can transmit a number of serious potentially fatal diseases especially in cats. These include babesiosis (piroplasmosis), ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, borreliosis, rickettsial infections, and several viral diseases. It depends on where cats/dogs are in the world as to the importance of each disease.
Severe skin reactions may occur around the site of a tick bite in sensitive animals.
In certain areas of the world (e.g. Australia), some of the ticks produce a toxin which causes paralysis which may be fatal.
Very occasionally, where there are large numbers of ticks attached to a small dog or cat, blood loss may be severe enough to cause anaemia.
What sort of ticks affect cats?
Many different species of ticks can feed on cats and dogs. The main group is known as the Ixodidae and they are responsible for the major diseases mentioned above. Not all ticks that feed on cats are infected but the risk needs to be considered. For information on the species of ticks that could cause problems in cats and dogs in a specific region, contact a local vet, veterinary laboratory or school.
It is difficult to determine the difference between tick species and expert identification is required. In the laboratory, ticks can be identified by looking at microscopic differences in their anatomy or by molecular testing of their DNA. If identification is planned, it is very important to remove the tick without damage to its head parts as these are used for anatomical identification. Place the tick with some of the cat/dog’s hair in a clean container with a tightly fitting screw top, and take to your vet. They will preserve the tick if further work is required.
How do I examine my pet for ticks?
Cats in high risk areas or if they are hunting, should be examined every day during peak tick periods. Be sure to check the head, ears and forequarters including the feet. If adult ticks are identified, they should be removed using a proper mechanical device available from your vet.
Where tick paralysis is suspected, animals should be taken immediately to a vet. Ticks may increase the volume of the toxin they inject if they are touched or removed incorrectly and anti-venom may be given before tick removal.
How can ticks be killed or prevented from attaching?
Care must be taken when choosing a product for treating ticks on cats. Many of the products that are safe for dogs are toxic for cats, especially those containing the synthetic pyrethroid drugs.
The recommended products for cats are those containing the drug fipronil in spot-on preparations (and sprays).
There are no drugs to safely repel ticks from cats. Ticks that are well attached when treatment is started, may still be attached 24-48 hours later even though they are dead. They should be mechanically removed carefully (as mentioned above for live ticks) to prevent head parts being left within the skin.
Can the environment be treated to kill ticks?
The main population of ticks occurs in the outside environment in areas that are not appropriate for spraying chemicals. However, a few species of tick can survive well in the kennel or household environments including cars. The use of a household spray containing synthetic pyrethroids (usually permethrin) as recommended for flea control could be used in these circumstances. It is wise to contact your vet in this situation.
How often should my cat be treated?
Cats at risk are those visiting environments optimal for ticks. Hunting or walking in forests (especially along tracks with grass verges), moorland vegetation, rough pasture land are all high risk and up-to-date treatment is required.
Ticks are more likely to be active in spring and autumn but may be found through summer in humid areas. Tick control should be continuous through this period and treatments applied according to the manufacturer’s directions. If there is doubt continue through winter as well. If your pet is travelling into an area where tick-transmitted diseases are common, continuous regular treatments are needed. Ask your vet for advice.
If applying anti-tick spot-on products or collars to your pet for the first time or if you are re-starting treatments after a break, it may take several days for the drugs to spread over the entire body in the skin oils and hair. If you are planning a trip where ticks are a problem, it is recommended to apply the treatment several days to a week in advance to ensure optimum protection.