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Do cats need tick treatment?

The bottom line is that they should - especially if your cat spends a lot of time outside crawling around in the undergrowth - not just to protect them, but to help protect you and your family as well!

What are ticks?

Ticks are a group of parasitic bloodsuckers, related to spiders. Their life cycle is quite straightforward, although it’s usually spread out over several years, and the most common in the UK is Ixodes ricinus, the Sheep Tick.

The eggs hatch on the ground, releasing larvae (which look quite similar to the adults, but are much smaller and have only six legs). These larval ticks climb up onto vegetation to wait for a suitable host to walk by - usually a mouse or other rodent. Once they’ve had a nice meal (ten to twenty times their own body weight!) they drop off. They then spend the next few months developing until they hatch out as a nymph.

The nymph does exactly the same, and then transforms into the adult, which preys on larger animals. The males take a small blood meal and then stay on the host until a female arrives. The females are the ones that feed greedily, absorbing up to 5ml of blood and swelling to an enormous size. During their feeding, they are mated, and then lay up to 3000 eggs, ready to complete the cycle.

I thought they only bit dogs?

No - ticks will bite any warm-blooded mammal they can get at! They also carry some really nasty infections, especially Lyme Disease (Borrelia burgdorferi, which affects dogs and people) and Babesiosis (Babesia canis which is an infection of dogs that has only recently reached the UK).

What harm can they do to cats?

Fortunately, most of the diseases transmitted by ticks either do not affect cats (such as Babesia canis; there is a Babesia felis which infects cats, but it is not yet found in the UK), or are of low risk (e.g. Lyme disease, where infection occurs but does not usually cause healthy cats a problem).

However, a heavy infestation of ticks can cause significant blood loss, especially in a kitten; in addition, cats are fastidious creatures and will do their best to keep clean. When grooming, a cat may remove a tick’s body - but in doing so, they will leave its head behind, embedded in the skin, where it often sets up an uncomfortable and unpleasant infection.

Finally, there is one disease of cats that can be transmitted by ticks (although fleas are probably more important) - Cat Scratch Fever (Bartonella henselae). Most cats do not become seriously ill with this, and it is very common in the cat population where subclinical infection is probably “normal” for many cats. However, occasionally it can lead to inflammation of the lymph nodes, liver or spleen, cause meningitis, or arthritis. Worse, it is a zoonotic infection that is easily transmitted through scratches to people.

What cats are at risk?

There is NO “tick-free” zone in the mainland UK. Even in inner cities, there are ticks present in the parks, gardens and undergrowth. Any cat who goes outdoors is potentially at risk!

When is the highest risk period?

Ticks like warmish, damp weather - so the usual peaks in tick activity are in the spring and autumn. However, given the twin problems of an increasingly warm and wet climate, and the heat-island effect of urban areas, we are seeing ticks active nearly all through the year. Given ideal conditions, a tick can complete its life cycle in as little as 18 months, so this is likely to result in an increase in tick populations in the near future.

What products will prevent tick bites in cats?

There are a range of prescription-only (collars and spot-ons) and some over-the-counter (spot ons) products that will kill ticks as well as fleas. However, be VERY VERY careful NEVER to use a dog product - many dog tick-killing products contain permethrin, a drug which is safe to them but lethal to cats! If in doubt, ask one of our vets for advice.

If you are concerned about fleas or ticks on your cat, have a chat to one of our vets who will be able to help you choose the best preventative health options.

Do you want to know more?

Tick Life Cycle - Companion Vector-Borne Diseases website

Tick-borne diseases - Langford Vet School

Feline bartonellosis and cat scratch disease