Ticks commonly affect pets—but what about cats? Do ticks bite cats, and do ticks affect cats in the same way as they affect other pets, or us? And how do you get rid of them?
Can cats catch ticks? They can, just like other pets. Ticks are found outdoors in grassy areas, where they cling to blades of grass and drop onto animals that pass by. They bite into the host cat’s skin and stay there for several days before dropping away. Ticks don’t live, breed or lay eggs on their hosts, so can’t be spread through direct contact. But they do cause health issues, so should be killed as soon as possible. Ticks on cats can cause Lyme disease, for example. Treatment involves spot-on treatments like Frontline Plus for Cats, which both kill ticks that are present and repel them in the future. Alternatively, consider keeping your cat indoors; don’t try home remedies like burning the tick with a match or painting it with nail polish.
The guide below first answers whether cats can get ticks, where ticks come from, and how you can tell when your cat has ticks. It will also cover the health problems ticks can cause, how to treat them, and how to stop ticks biting your cat in the first place.
Can Cats Get Ticks?
Cats can catch ticks. They catch them in the same way as any other animal. The tick will find its way into your cat’s coat, make a bite mark that it can feed from, and then stay in place until it’s had a full meal. It’s unlikely but possible that your cat will have more than one tick in its coat, because ticks don’t live on their hosts like other pests do. They also don’t mate or lay eggs on their hosts like fleas, lice or mites.
There is one crucial caveat, though. Indoor cats can’t catch ticks if they have no access to the outside. Only through a very select and very unlikely set of circumstances could that happen, for example if you catch a tick on your own body, don’t get rid of it, and it lets go of its bite in your home. It could then go on to bite your indoor cat. It’s because of this that if ticks are a frequent problem, you should consider keeping your cat indoors at all times.
Where Do Ticks Come From?
Ticks come from the outdoors. They are pests that feed on wild animals like deer. They can also feed on wild cats like bobcats, or on people; any mammal makes a suitable host. It’s therefore possible for them to bite housecats too.
They aren’t passed from one animal to another in the same way that other pests are. Ticks will feed on multiple hosts throughout their lives, but are not spread through direct contact. They come from wild areas with lots of tall grass for the ticks to hide in. The ticks wait there for potential hosts to pass by, and then, ideally, return their after they’re done feeding.
It’s for this reason that cats can get problems like bobcat fever from tick bites. This is a health issue that bobcats have, which ticks can catch too if they feed on them. If that tick goes on to later feed on a domestic cat, it passes the condition on.
How Do Cats Catch Ticks?
Ticks spread through a process known as ‘questing’. This is where the tick finds a suitable place to lie in wait—somewhere that a new host is likely to pass by.
This is why ticks spread in long grass. The tick will climb the blade of grass and balance near its tip. If a new potential host walks by and brushes the blade of grass, the tick can drop onto it. It will then scramble to catch hold in the animals’s fur, if it has any, and burrow its head into the host’s skin. This burrowing is how the tick stays in place without falling off.
Do Ticks Fly, Jump, Or Have Wings?
Ticks can’t do any of these things.
They don’t have wings, so can’t fly. They are arachnids, meaning that they are closely related to spiders; they are not in the insect class. There are no species in the arachnid class that have wings (or antennae, for that matter). Ticks also don’t live in trees and drop down onto their hosts from above, which could potentially involve a little gliding.
Ticks also don’t jump. When you look at an animal like a flea, it has hind legs specially adapted for leaping. The flea’s legs are long, and can bend at such an angle to give the perfect lift-off. A tick’s legs look more like a crab’s legs—but, of course, in miniature. They can’t be bent in the same way, nor do ticks have the specially adapted muscles needed for the force to leap away from the ground. Rather, they will be brushed onto their new host as it walks by, or at most drop a short distance (like a few inches).
Do Ticks Lay Eggs?
Ticks do lay eggs, but not in the context that you’re probably thinking.
Other pests like fleas or lice will find their way into your cats fur, and lay eggs there. The tiny colony then becomes self-sustaining, continually feeding on your cat and reproducing. Ticks don’t do that. The tick will find its way into your cat’s fur from the outdoors as described above; but once it’s done feeding, it will drop away and find somewhere secluded to digest its food. It will hardly move as it does so. When it has fully digested its blood meal, the tick will search for its next host.
Female ticks do lay eggs, but not on their hosts. They do so in the spring of their third year to complete their life cycles.
Can People Catch Ticks from Cats? (Cat Ticks on Humans)
The same ticks that bite your cat could also bite you.
To be clear, you can’t catch ticks on direct contact. Even if you see the tick in your cat’s coat and poke and prod at it, it will stay steadfastly where it is. When it detaches, it won’t immediately search for a new host, but go into hiding so that it can digest. It could then eventually make its way to you, then, but not in the way that fleas or lice might.
Besides, these aren’t ‘cat ticks’ anyway. If your cat has a tick, it isn’t a cat-specific species. It’s a generic tick that could have been caught by a dog, a wild animal, or a person.
How Do You Know If Your Cat Has Ticks?
If your cat is fortunate enough not to catch anything from the tick, then the tick itself may be the only sign. But there are many, many symptoms that tick-borne diseases can cause.
You can easily tell that your cat has a tick infestation by looking for the signs below.
You Can See The Tick
Ticks aren’t as small as fleas or lice. You can easily see them with the naked eye. That becomes more and more true as they feed, because they swell to about a third of an inch in size. You can therefore tell how long the tick has been feeding just by looking at it.
When they have only just attached, the ticks are small, brown and hard. Their small rounded bodies stick out at a slight angle from the cat’s skin, and are bordered by their short brown legs. You can poke at them and flap them around, in the same way that you might a skin tag. But they don’t come loose unless you really pull at them (although you shouldn’t, as you can leave the head in).
As the tick feeds, its dark brown becomes both lighter and redder. That’s a result of its body swelling up and taking in more blood. You could initially mistake it for a cancerous lump or a large cyst of some kind, but you can still move it around or lift it by poking at it—ticks are unmistakeable on close inspection.
During the initial stage of infestation, it may be difficult to spot the tick without lifting up the fur around it. But as it feeds, it will form a large lump that sticks out from the cat’s fur.
Tick Bite Alopecia
If your cat is unforunate enough to be bitten by a tick with a transmissible disease, then alopecia is a likely symptom.
Tick bite alopecia occurs because of your cat’s robust immune response. It spreads out gradually from the point of the bite, and eventually forms a large and noticeable hairless ring with the tick at its center. It can also occur after the tick has dropped off. This circle will be red in appearance. It may also form a bullseye pattern.
The bald spot can continue to get bigger and bigger. In the worst cases, whether because the tick had a particularly high bacterial load or because your cat suffered an extremely bad reaction to the tick, it can lose a large ring of hair several inches across.
Can Cats Get Lyme Disease from a Tick?
Cats have been shown to catch Lyme disease. Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi, and is, of course, transmitted through tick bites. The tick has to be infected with these bacteria to pass it on. The cat won’t become infectious, i.e. it can’t spread the disease through contact, but ticks that have fed on the cat could.
It’s far less common for cats to experience Lyme disease than it is for dogs. That’s partly because cats don’t go out as much as dogs, but there are other reasons that are less well understood. It was only in 2020 that the first reports of cardiac abnormalities as a symptom of Lyme disease were reported in cats, for example. So, it seems that Lyme disease is either less serious in cats or affects cats in different ways. It would nevertheless require veterinary treatment.
How Long Can a Tick Live on a Cat?
Ticks don’t live on their hosts indefinitely. They release their bite and drop away when they’ve had enough food.
It takes a few days for the tick to finish feeding. It starts out small, the size of a tiny house spider. When they’re done eating, though, they swell to an enormous size. They are quite literally full of your cat’s blood. When they release their bite, though, they don’t stay hiding in your cat’s fur, or leave eggs behind; so a few days is all they’ll be there for.
What Should I Do If I Find a Tick on My Cat?
If your cat has caught a tick, you should remove it as soon as possible.
There are two reasons why. The first is that ticks can carry diseases. Lyme disease doesn’t affect cats in precisely the same way as other animals, and can be asymptomatic. But other tick-borne diseases, such as cytauxzoonosis, can be fatal to cats. Cytauxzoonosis is better known as bobcat fever, and only has a 60% survival rate with the best modern medicines. If you remove the tick as soon as possible, the bacterial, viral or parasitic load will be lower and the ensuing condition less serious.
The second reason is that when the tick drops off, it will find a place to hide and digest its meal. It may hide somewhere that’s hard to find, which will make it hard to get rid of. It can then feed on your cat again, or on you, the next time it gets hungry. Even if this is unlikely—the tick will struggle to navigate indoors, and to find a questing spot—it’s infinitely preferable to get rid of it.
Tick Treatment for Cats (How to Remove a Tick from a Cat)
There are medicinal treatments that can either kill ticks or prevent them. These are available over the counter, or you can talk to your vet about extra-strength solutions.
The most common medication is fipronil. Fipronil is an insecticide, meaning it kills all kinds of cat pests, including ticks. Fipronil is the active ingredient in spot-on treatments like Frontline, which are applied as ‘spot-on treatments’. That means you dab them on your cat’s skin, and from there, minute amounts are absorbed into the bloodstream. Because fipronil is an effective insecticide, these small amounts are capable of killing any tick or flea without harming your cat.
These treatments are exceptionally effective, and work in almost all cases. Examples of cat tick medication include:
- Frontline Plus for Cats. Frontline and frontline plus are almost exactly the same. The difference is that Plus contains an extra ingredient, methoprene, which kills fleas—so either regular Frontline or Plus will work.
- Cheristin for Cats. Cheristin contains spinetoram, a natural chemical byproduct of fermentation which kills insects. Cheristin is marketed for killing fleas, but may also kill ticks.
- PetAction Plus Flea, Tick & Lice Treatment for Cats. This contains the same active ingredients as Frontline Plus (something they advertise on the box).
- Bravecto Topical for Cats. Bravecto contains yet another kind of insecticide, fluralaner. It’s only available by prescription, and is stronger than over-the-counter treatments. Bravecto also comes in oral form.
- Catego for Cats. Catego contains three different insecticides: fipronil, dinotefuran and pyriproxyfen.
There are also some medications that can only be obtained by talking to a vet. These are stronger in concentration, so are better at killing ticks and other pests. If you’ve tried the medications above and they don’t work, then the stronger spot-on treatments you can get from a
Are Tick Medications Dangerous?
Fipronil and other insecticides aren’t entirely without side-effects.
Some owners report burn-like symptoms around the application site, for example. That is the result of irritation rather than full chemical burns, but it can be alarming to see. Eating large amounts of certain insecticides can also cause nausea, vomiting and lethargy, although spot-on treatments advise clearly that they aren’t for your cat to ingest, but to be put on its coat.
Generally speaking, the higher the concentration of the insecticide, or the volume that’s ingested/used, the more toxic to life it is. Insecticides are specially formulated to kill insects easily, but to have minimal or no effect on mammals. This can be either because much more is required to kill a mammal than an insect, or because the action by which it kills an insect is irrelevant to a mammal. Fipronil, for example, partly works by damaging a kind of neurotransmitter that insects have but cats don’t. The EPA do however classify fipronil as a class C carcinogen, which means there is limited evidence available showing cancerous effects.
You therefore aren’t alone if you don’t want to use them. However, in the overwhelming majority of cases, Frontline and other medications are both safe and effective.
How to Get Rid of Ticks on Cats Naturally (Without Medication)
If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of feeding your cats medications, you don’t have to. There are many home remedies available for treating ticks; but not all of them are as effective as others, and some can, in fact, do more damage than simply leaving the tick in place.
Health bodies like the CDC recommend using tweezers to remove ticks quickly and effectively. The idea isn’t to crush the tick, but to grasp it gently and pull it away. The CDC’s recommended guidelines are as follows:
- Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
- Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
- After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
- Never crush a tick with your fingers. Dispose of a live tick by putting it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet.
By tweezing the tick as close to the skin’s surface as you can, you get a hold of its thorax—the tick’s equivalent of its neck and head. Only the tick’s special mouthparts enter the body, but these can be held in place either by a cement/glue-like secretion and sharp barbs on the mouthparts themselves. By applying pressure as close to the mouthparts as you can, you can pull at them more effectively.
As you likely already know, it’s important not to leave the mouthparts behind. It’s very easy to pull a tick away with tweezers with too much force, which makes the mouthparts rip away from the tick’s body. This can make disease more likely, and cause an extended immune response.
Don’t use your fingers to do this. You would squeeze the tick instead of pulling it out. Always use tweezers, particularly those with fine pointed ends.
Can You Squeeze a Tick to Kill It?
This is the worst possible idea.
It’s true that if you squeeze a tick, then it will die. Ticks are soft and vulnerable after they have a big meal. You could easily burst the tick with slight pressure from your fingers or a pair of tweezers.
The problem is that if you squeeze the tick, the blood in its body will shoot back into your cat’s blood stream. Besides being an utterly disgusting thing to think about, this will ensure that your cat gets a very heavy dose of whatever pathogens the tick is carrying. Even if the tick was carrying nothing, your cat’s body will recognize lots of foreign substances in the blood and will issue a very strong immune response that could harm your cat’s health.
After you remove the tick another way, you could wrap it up in tape or a plastic bag and crush it. Or you could just put it in the bin. But crushing it when it’s still attached is the worst idea possible.
Can You Use Heat to Remove a Tick?
You can, but this isn’t the ideal solution for you or your cat.
Again, it’s true that if the tick feels that it’s being burned, it will detach and try to get away. However, there are several drawbacks to using this approach:
- Your cat is covered in fur—enough said…
- The tick won’t detach unless directly burned by the flame. It’s difficult to get the flame close enough to your cat’s skin so that it burns the tick.
- Holding the flame either on its side or upside down will mean that it burns you just as much as it burns the tick.
- You want to remove the tick on your terms, not on the tick’s terms!
Considering how effective tweezers are when used correctly, there’s no need to use a lighter or a match.
Can You Use Nail Polish to Remove a Tick?
It might sound odd at first, but there is a logic to using nail polish to remove ticks. The idea is that it will suffocate the tick, which doesn’t breathe in the same way that we do. Ticks don’t breathe through a mouth or a nose like we do, but through lots of small holes in their bodies. Air passes passively into these holes, meaning that the tick doesn’t breathe in using muscles (e.g. a diaphragm). When these holes are covered, the tick can’t ‘breathe in’ any air.
There are several problems to this approach. The first is that you may not perfectly cover the tick in nail polish. Ticks and other arachnids need hardly any oxygen as it is, so having only a few open holes to absorb air would be fine for the tick. If you didn’t cover its entire underside, for example, it would be fine. You would also have to wait for the nail polish to dry, and as it’s drying, it could drip or be brushed away.
Then you have your cat. If you use nail polish on the tick, it would get in your cat’s fur too. This isn’t the biggest inconvenience, as you can trim away the small amount of affected hair. But since there are fixes that won’t further damage your cat’s coat, this counts as a minor ‘con’. All in all, there are better ways to get rid of ticks, even if this might work in an ideal world.
Follow-Up Vet Checks
No matter how you remove your cat’s ticks, you should take your cat to the vet for a follow-up check. That’s because tick-borne diseases can take time to appear, or take time to worsen.
In particular, you want to ensure that your cat doesn’t develop a rash or a fever in the weeks following a tick bite. These are the two most common symptoms of tick-borne illnesses. They can take several weeks to appear, so you should consider:
- Taking your cat to the vet either when you notice or remove the tick. The vet can identify any immediate health issues related to the bite.
- Taking your cat to the vet for a check up after three weeks, whether you notice symptoms or not, just to be safe.
- Taking your cat to the vet if you notice a rash or a fever, or any other symptoms of tick-borne illnesses.
Once several weeks have passed, if no symptoms have appeared, then it’s unlikely that your cat has caught anything from the tick.