Categories: cat parasites

It’s tick season: are ticks dangerous to cats?

I’m told that ticks are around all year but more prevalent during spring and autumn. It is therefore tick season. And ticks are repulsive parasites that can cause a lot of disease in cats and of course dogs. If your cat goes outside as nearly all cats in Britain do and many millions of cats in America do as well, it is probably wise to check your cat when she comes in from the outside especially if she walks in long grass. You can do this by using a flea comb over your cat’s body or using your hands to feel for a lump. Engorged ticks are quite large and will present as a lump under the fur.

Tick behind cat’s ear. Photo: Reddit.com

Acquired

Ticked do not jump onto cats like fleas do. They climb up grass and plants and lift their legs up to sense for a passing host. When your cat walks past the adult tick will crawl onto her and begin to feed on her blood. They are normally found around the neck, between the toes and sometimes in the armpits. The horrible part about ticks is that they can spread serious diseases to cats.

Lyme disease

Lyme disease in cats can be devastating. This is more common in dogs however. When they become infected they may show loss of appetite, fatigue, difficulty breathing, fever and perhaps lameness. It affects the kidneys, joints, nervous system and heart. Some cats do not have noticeable symptoms. I recall a colleague of mine telling me that her Maine Coon cat got Lyme disease and I think the disease killed her cat. It’s a very serious disease.

Babesiosis

It is not the only disease that ticks can transmit to cats. Babesiosis is a rare infectious disease. And it infects people as well as cats and dogs. There may be no symptoms. Sometimes there can be severe symptoms. They include fever, fatigue and loss of appetite. There may be joint pain and muscle pain. I am listing some symptoms present in humans but they will be the same and cats, in my opinion.

Cytauxzoonosis

Another disease that can be passed by the tick is cytauxzoonosis. VCA hospitals in America say that this is an emerging disease in domestic cats. The symptoms of the disease are often vague and unspecific which makes diagnosis tricky. There is fatigue, poor appetite, difficulty breathing and pale gums (anaemia?). Infected cats will be dehydrated, have a fever and an increased heart rate. Their lymph nodes, spleen and liver may be enlarged. They may demonstrate that they are in pain and do not want to be touched.

Ehrlichiosis

Another disease transmitted by this disgusting parasite is ehrlichiosis. The symptoms are similar to the above. They include body aches, fever, muscle aches, chills, headache, nausea and perhaps vomiting and diarrhoea.

Haemobartonellosis

Haemobartonellosis which is also transmitted in the saliva of ticks causes feline infectious anaemia in cats. It can also be spread by flea bites. There may be no symptoms but in some cats there will be life-threatening anaemia.

Tularaemia

Tularaemia in cats. Illustration by PoC.

Tularaemia is also spread by ticks. The disease causes acute illness with high fever. There are large painful lymph nodes in the head and neck, abdominal pain, jaundice and organ system failure according to VCA hospitals. It is a terribly serious disease.

Check for ticks

Tick under dog’s gums! Photo: Reddit.

The point being made above is that ticks transmit serious diseases to cats and indeed people and dogs. Sometimes ticks drop off a cat and transfer to people although this is uncommon. I don’t think you can be careful enough about ticks during the tick season. Male and females ticks mate on the skin of a cat. The female takes a blood meal afterwards and then drops off to lay her eggs. This occurs 5 to 20 hours after the tick lands on the cat. It is a window of opportunity to remove the tick before disease is transmitted in tick saliva.

Removing

You probably know how to remove ticks but I will mention it briefly here. There are devices to remove them and you should be careful not to crush or squeeze a tick with your bare fingers. It is advisable to wear disposable rubber gloves. You can use a pair of tweezers. You should be careful not to leave their head buried in the skin because it may detach and remain behind.

Here is an example of what can go wrong from Reddit.com:

My 4 year old outdoor Bengal Cat came home with some lightly matted fur on his head. I tried lightly brushing it out which he didn’t like but I didn’t think much of it. Next day, minor swelling on that side of his head/face. Upon further inspection, I’m almost possible there was a tick. If there was, it has since been removed (saw something bulbous and brown for a moment then splat). Since, there has been a fair amount of pus from that spot which I have dabbed up. Cat then get fed up with me and ran outside. Do I need to take him to a vet?

You should grasp the tick firmly with the tweezers which are positioned as close to the cat’s body as possible without pinching the skin. A drop of alcohol or nail polish applied to the tick may force it to release its hold. If the mouthparts are left in the cat they can cause a local infection which can be treated with a dab of antibiotic ointment. If the infection remains you should consult your veterinarian.

Disposal

The tick should be disposed of carefully and not down the toilet because they can survive the trip. My reference book says that you should place the removed tick in jar or plastic dish with a little alcohol. It should be sealed and disposed of in an outdoor garbage can. You might like to have your veterinarian identify the tick and to see if it was carrying a disease.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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