Ticks in cats

There are few things more heart-stopping for a cat owner sitting quietly stroking their cat than suddenly coming across a tick embedded in its skin. It feels horrible and your first thought is that the animal must be in pain. In fact, when the tick embeds into the cat’s skin, its saliva contains a mild local anaesthetic so it does not hurt. What can be painful is if the tick is knocked off or the owner in removing it leaves the head parts attached; this can sometimes cause a localised infection or even a small abscess.

Do all Ticks Carry Disease?

Obviously the first thing anyone thinks of on finding a tick is the risk of Lyme Disease. This does occur in England, but it is very localised and vets in an affected area will be aware of this and there will be a lot of literature available for pet owners (and humans!) as well as extra vigilance if the cat has ticks. Other diseases can be carried by ticks, but they do not normally cause a problem; the reasons for trying to keep your cat tick free are mainly to make sure the animal does not become anaemic and that abscesses may arise in the area of the bite. It is obviously only common sense to take special care to watch your cat for any signs of ill health or distress having discovered a tick, but the chances of any real health issues are small. 

Just what is a Tick?

Ticks are not insects but arthropods; with mites they have an order all to themselves, the Acarinas. The ticks we find on our pets are the adults and they feed on blood. The three life cycles after the egg – larvae, nymphs and adults – can all live independently but all suck blood. When they need to feed they locate the nearness of prey by heat sensitive areas on their heads and once ‘on board’ migrate to areas where there is little hair and where the blood is near the surface. This is why you will probably find the ticks on ears, near eyes and around the mouth. This is not because the cat has been sticking its head in the long grass – the tick may have attached on the leg, but it will have travelled to the best place to feed. When it is full it will let go and drop off. When the tick attaches, it pushes its mouth parts into the skin and ‘locks on’. This is why it is so difficult to remove.

How to Remove Ticks

There are lots of old wives tales about removing ticks and most of them either don’t work or are horrendously stressful for the cat. The principle of most of them is that the tick will be shocked into opening its mouth and will drop off; an example is applying a lit cigarette to the tick’s rear! This does not work and should on no account be attempted. Neither is it any good to try to poison or drown the tick – this will just be unpleasant for your cat and will achieve nothing. The best thing is to try prevention but if a tick has attached it can be removed quite easily.


Using tweezers, or a special tool available from pet shops or veterinary clinic, grab the tick firmly at skin level. This is assuming that your cat will co-operate and it has to be said that most cats hate this as much as the tick must! There is no need to twist the tick and in fact if you do there is more chance that the head will break off, so pull gently but firmly with no jerking and the whole thing should come out cleanly. If the head or mouthparts do break off this is not a disaster; the cat will form a small abscess perhaps or a localised spot, but the immune system will soon kick in and the place will quickly heal. If there are a lot of ticks, it is probably best to let a vet deal with them.

Prevention of Ticks

The best prevention is to not let your pet go into long grass or other places where ticks lie in wait for a host, but unless you live in a totally urban setting or your cat is strictly a house cat, this is not really feasible. Even an urban cat could get a tick; people are often the unwitting vectors (unaffected carriers) of ticks on their clothing and even a house cat could get a tick this way. Otherwise, there are topical preventatives which are available, either washes, powders, sprays, collars or ‘spot-on’ varieties which will mean that new ticks will not successfully attach and old ticks will drop off. These tick control products must be used with care, however.

Children and Ticks

If you or more especially children pet the cat, then it is very important not to do so immediately after application as the anti-parasite used is very strong and will affect a human. Also, though tempting if you have dogs as well as cats, you must never ever use a dog tick powder or spray on a cat; it will be extremely toxic and may even kill the cat. Many of the proprietary brands of tick prevention also work on other parasites such as worms and fleas, so one application can cover a multitude of potential problems for your cat; it is worth shopping around to find one which is easy to use and has the widest effect; most tick prevention methods need to be re-applied monthly.


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