What Is a Tick? - Cat Info Detective

What Is a Tick?

Skye Blake-updated, white background

Greetings, curious cats! Skye Blake here, checking in about those nasty critters… ticks! Let’s find out what they are, how to keep them off your cat, and how to remove them.

The information here is for general knowledge… always see your vet with questions about your cat’s individual needs.

paw prints coming in from a distance

Who Is Skye Blake?

Skye Blake-updated, white background

Skye Blake, Cat Info Detective, is a curious cat researcher (not a veterinarian or scientist) who sniffs out expert, reliable sources about cats, studies their information, then passes it on to you! 

Sometimes there’s not enough evidence for easy answers, so Skye gives you all sides, explains the situation as thoroughly and clearly as possible, and links you to experts on each page. 

All sources are at the bottom of each page so you can do more snooping. 

What Is a Tick?


Ticks are Arachnida (scientific classification), tiny cousins of spiders, scorpions and mites.

They require meals of blood from hosts to survive and grow, but can live a year or more without food.

Ticks don’t jump, fly, or drop from trees.

kitten hunting in grass

They simply sit on a blade of grass or leaf, reach out with their front legs and grab or crawl onto a host. This is known as “questing”.

As larvae, ticks have six legs but when they grow to the nymph stage they develop eight legs.

Deer tick comparison chart
US federal government Center for Disease Control (CDC)

They range in color from shades of brown to reddish brown and black.

The chart below shows their true size.

The female is usually the one people see and when engorged with blood, swells to about the size of a small marble.

Life Cycle of a Tick

Life cycle of a 3-host hard tick, based on Dermacentor variabilis (American dog tick)

Life cycle of a 3-host hard tick, based on Dermacentor variabilis (American dog tick)1 “Ticks”, Public Health and Medical Entomology, Purdue University Illustration by: Scott Charlesworth, Purdue University

Both hard and soft ticks have a complex life cycle…

  • egg
  • larvae (seed)
  • nymph
  • adult

The larvae, nymphs and adults all need blood meals.

Usually, the female adult is the one who bites the most since males usually die after mating.

Little Bloodsuckers

ticks on a pant leg

Ticks are bloodsuckers that are found all over the world.

They’re known both as pests and transmitters of disease to people and animals.

There are about 850 species and about 30 major diseases they spread.

In the United States there are 82 species and 10 diseases.

Black & white cat on a sidewalk

Their common names are what you’ve most likely heard.

There’s the dog, deer, Lone Star, and African tick, among others. “Red” is used to describe one that is engorged with a blood meal.

If you’d like more information about these diseases in humans, their symptoms and treatments, check further at “Overview of Tickborne Diseases”2Overview of Tickborne Diseases“, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

3-Host Ticks

adult tick

Most hard species are “3-host ticks”… they feed off three different hosts in their three stages of growth.

  • The larva feeds on host #1, drops off, grows to a nymph
  • The nymph feeds on host #2, drops off, grows to an adult
  • The adult (male and female) feeds on host #3, mate and drop off
  • Males die shortly after mating
  • Females lay about 3,000-8,000 eggs on the soil (this can take a few days to weeks) and then dies
cat outside in tick area

Their life cycles can last from 90 days to two years, depending on…

  • species
  • type of hosts on which they feed
  • length of each developmental stage
  • which developmental stage survives winter
  • how long it takes to complete a life cycle

What’s the Difference Between a Tick & a Flea?

If you’re not familiar with them, ticks can be easily confused with fleas simply because they’re small bloodsuckers.

However, there are some major differences.

The illustrations below show an adult flea and an engorged adult tick after feeding. You can see some differences right away…

drawing of a flea
engorged tick
Engorged Adult Tick

For starters, fleas (Siphonaptera) are true insects and ticks are arachnids.

Adult fleas are much smaller. They both feed on a host’s blood but fleas don’t swell up.

Fleas can jump long distances for their size, but ticks can’t jump at all.

Mama cat & 3 kittens sitting on driveway

Fleas can also scurry around quickly, which ticks don’t do.

Adult fleas live only a couple weeks and can bite up to 400 times.

Their bites are usually felt by the host and become very itchy.

Ticks can live for over a year and the host usually doesn’t feel the bite.

cat sitting in the woods

They bite once, drink their fill and fall off. If it’s a nymph, it grows to an adult and bites again.

Fleas live in groups so if you see one on your cat, there are more lurking about, even if you can’t see them.

Ticks are usually solitary but if your cat walks through grass where more than one is questing, she can easily pick up multiple ticks.

Discover more about fleas at “What Is a Flea? What Does It Look Like?

How Do Ticks Transmit Diseases to Cats?

Deer Tick
Deer Tick
Photo by Scott Bauer3This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, with the ID k8002-3,  PD-USGov-USDA-ARS

Two families of ticks, Ixodidae (hard) and Argasidae (soft), have been proven to transmit diseases to humans and cats.

Both types are carriers (vectors) of microbes in their saliva and mouth secretions.

When they bite a host these microbes (bacteria or parasites) get into the host’s skin and blood.

dewdrops on grass; ticks quest on blades of grass

There are about 12 species that transmit any significant illness to cats.

This sounds like a lot, but most ticks don’t carry disease.

In most areas of the United States, the majority of ticks that people deal with are hard ticks.


They have a hard plate, or “scutum”, on their back which soft ticks do not have.

Hard ticks usually attach to a warm, moist area on the body and feed for hours or even days.

It’s usually the female that people deal with because she engorges to a size they can see and feel.


Disease transmission usually happens near the end, as the tick becomes full of blood.

It may take hours before a hard tick transmits pathogens.

Soft ticks are almost never seen by the average person since they feed quickly while in the den, burrow, or nest of the host.

frustrated man

They usually feed for less than one hour and can transmit disease in less than a minute.

The bite of some of these soft ticks produces intensely painful reactions.

Only a Few Transmittable Diseases Affect Cats

kittens standing together

Fortunately, cats are highly resistant to Lyme disease and most others that ticks can transmit.

There are, however, a few that, though rare, are very dangerous to cats.

Your veterinarian can review them with you, or you can find more detailed info at “Ticks and Your Cat”, Cornell Feline Health Center, Cornell University College of Veterinarian Medicine.

kitten in tree

Since most ticks encountered in the United States are hard ticks, if you remove them quickly it’s unlikely your cat will have any problem.

You’ll just need to watch for the symptoms listed below…

Symptoms of Tick-Borne Diseases in Cats

British Shorthair cat sniffing grass

The main thing you need to know about these diseases is what symptoms to look for in your cat.

There’s no way to tell from looking at a tick or the bite wound if any disease was transmitted.

You may not ever know one was on your cat, so it’s best to know the symptoms.

tabby cat being groomed - not happy

Watch for at least a few days after removing a tick as well.

Certain antibiotics are effective, especially when the disease is in the early stages.

The earlier your cat is treated, the better chance you have of saving his life.


If your cat shows any of these symptoms, get him to the vet right away.

Only your vet can diagnose the specific problem and treat it.

  • anemia (pale gums, lethargy, inability to eat, rapid or open mouth breathing)
  • fever
  • enlarged lymph nodes
  • stiff or swollen joints
  • abscesses
cat watching something in a tree

Fleas and ticks both are culprits in transmitting bacteria and parasites that cause these symptoms.

Having a healthy, strong immune system is important when dealing with any bacteria, virus, or parasite.

Sick or weak cats will attract pests much more easily than a healthy cat.

How Do Ticks Get on My Cat?

A tick questing from a blade of grass
A tick questing from a blade of grass

Ticks are most prevalent April-September each year but can be active year-round as long as the temperature is above freezing.

They’re opportunists but they don’t jump, fly, or drop from trees.

They simply sit on a blade of grass or leaf, reach out with their front legs and grab or crawl onto a host. This is known as “questing”.

tuxedo cat wearing collar

When you, your dog or cat walks through the grass and brush up against it, the tick will climb aboard for the ride!

It can then get onto your indoor cat when you unknowingly walk in the house with it.

How Can I Keep Them Off My Cat?

woman petting a cat
Brush daily & check for ticks

Here are a few things you can do to keep ticks off your cat…

  • Keep your cat indoors. This is effective but doesn’t keep them from traveling inside on you or your dog, so…
  • Use flea and tick preventive products as directed by your vet. Cats are very sensitive to certain ingredients, so you’ll want to use something that’s safe but still effective.
  • If you have an infestation, use pesticides in your yard that are made to kill ticks but are non-toxic to people (be careful with these… some hurt cats, fish or bees)
  • Check out more ideas for avoiding bites from the Centers for Disease Control… “”Preventing Tick Bites
brush your cat regularly
  • Brush your cat daily, especially during warm months
  • While brushing and petting your cat, feel for lumps and check them closely. Remove any you find immediately.

It’s important to note that ticks are active any time of year when the temperature is above freezing… this includes winter!

Discover more about dealing with fleas and ticks at “Cat Health“.

What Do I Do If I Find a Tick?

tweezers used to remove and handle ticks

If you find a tick that’s not attached, pick it up with tweezers or wear gloves if you have to handle it.

Use one of the following ways to kill it…

Effective Ways to Kill a Tick

cat in tree looking up

There are a few effective ways to kill a tick and others that are well-known but don’t work.

Here are the two best ways to deal with them…


empty jar with lid

Suffocation or burning a tick with a match are the most effective ways of killing them.

The easiest method is to put it in an airtight container (jar with lid or a sealable plastic bag).

Within a few days, it will die from lack of oxygen. This way you can keep it to show your doctor or vet if necessary.

refrigerator, freezer

Putting the jar or bag in the freezer overnight will speed the process since ticks can’t live long below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

Or put them in a container of alcohol or mouthwash that contains alcohol.

It dries them out (desiccates them) within a few minutes to a few hours.


lit match used to kill ticks once removed from cat

If you want to burn the tick, hold it in tweezers and burn it with a match over a sink or outdoors.

If you put it in a fireplace or other open flame, be sure it’s dead before leaving it.

DON’T EVER try to use a hot or burning match to detach a tick from your cat (or anyone else, for that matter).

‘Nuf said on that…

What Doesn’t Work

"no" sign

There are some ideas that don’t work for various reasons…

Essential Oils

essential oil samples for fleas on cats

Even though some essential oils kill ticks (rosemary oil is effective as a repellent for people), they’re not recommended for use directly on cats.

Any oils must be extremely diluted to be safe for cats and essential oils are 100% concentrated… way too strong for your kitty!

They should only be used under the direction of a knowledgeable veterinarian.

2 ginger cats - kitten grooming mom

Reputable commercial flea and tick products are already diluted to the proper safe dosage, depending on the weight of your cat, as long as you follow the instructions.

Don’t use any product on a cat that’s made just for dogs.

See “What Are Essential Oils?” for more about these.


Toilet flushing

Ticks don’t drown! They’ve been known to crawl back up out of a toilet, so flushing a live tick isn’t a smart option!

How to Completely Remove an Attached Tick

engorged tick

There are a few different ways you can remove an attached tick.

They can transmit diseases to humans, so it’s best to wear gloves and wash your hands after dealing with one.

Tweezers or Extractor

tweezers to remove ticks

The recommended way is to carefully use tweezers, or a special tool called a “tick extractor” (which you can buy at a drug or pet store, online, or get from your vet).

Get below the body and pinch firmly close to the head where it’s attached to the skin. Steadily pull until it lets go.

Never squeeze or squash the body as that can release disease pathogens!

tick on a hand

Don’t twist or turn the tick since this could break it and leave the head behind.

Any portion left embedded could still transmit disease and cause infection.

If this happens take your buddy to the vet to be sure they get the head out properly.

grey kitten at tree trunk

If it’s a female (which it usually is), there will be eggs inside the body that must be dealt with safely.

Dispose of it using one of the methods mentioned above (suffocation or fire).

Thoroughly clean the bite area with soap and water or a mild disinfectant.

tonkinese hunting in grass

You can put a cat-friendly antibiotic cream on it if you’re concerned about bacteria.

It won’t, however, have any effect on preventing transmitted diseases.

Watch the area for several days for any reaction such as rash or signs of infection.

Wash your hands and tweezers thoroughly after handling the tick.

Without Tweezers

adult tick

To remove it without tweezers, there are several things you can try.

If possible, wear gloves and push away any fur around the tick. Gently rotate it’s body one direction for about a minute or so.

This sometimes takes longer so be sure you don’t break off the body and leave the mouthparts.

cat chewing grass

Rotating the tick irritates it enough to let go and you can remove it by touching it with sticky tape.

The idea is to get it to let go quickly without ejecting any saliva into the bite that might transmit diseases.

What Not To Do

don't burn a tick off a cat

There are some things that may kill ticks but are NOT good to use to remove an attached one.

These products agitate it and that increases the chance of disease transmission. Some are…

  • Petroleum jelly (doesn’t suffocate them)
  • Glue
tabby, white cat grooming himself
  • Dish soap
  • Nail polish (doesn’t suffocate them)
  • Kerosene
  • Gasoline
  • Fire! While fire is a great way to kill a tick, don’t ever use a lit or hot match to try to release it from your cat’s skin (or yours either)
cat eating outside

Don’t ever squash or squeeze a tick, especially if it’s engorged!

You’ll cause its stomach contents to come out and if that goes into an open wound (like the bite) it increases the chances of disease transmission.


Here are some videos that show different tick removal methods. They work the same way for cats, dogs, people, and other animals.

“How to Remove a Tick from a Cat”, The Guardians Choice, January 7, 2020
“Safe & Easy Tick Removal, No Tweezers and No Pain”, Mick Phillips, July 7, 2014
“”Vet Tutorial… How to Remove a Tick From a Dog”, Dr. Clayton Greenway, Healthcare For Pets, November 15, 2018

Final Thoughts

cat scratching a branch

Many flea treatments are also effective for ticks and should say so on the label.

Any product can be toxic to cats if you use too much and ineffective if too little.

Always talk to your vet before applying any treatments to your kitty and follow instructions carefully.

Discover more about getting rid of ticks and fleas at “Cat Health“.


Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary.

Primary sources are always preferable and have the most reliable information because they’re original and directly referenced.

Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.

Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own.

However, sometimes they refer to primary sources.

When I use secondary sources, most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.

List of Sources

“77 Things to Know Before Getting a Cat”, by Susan M. Ewing, Companion House Books, an imprint of Fox Chapel Publishers International, Ltd., 2018, pp. 120-121


“All About Ticks”, American Lyme Disease Foundation, Inc.

“The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting & Owning a Cat”, by Sheila Webster Boneham, Ph.D., Alpha Books, Penguin Group, 2005, pp. 142-3


“How to Get Rid of Ticks – Natural & Effective Methods”, Organic Daily Post



“Parasitology Expertise From the NCVP: Feline Tick-Borne Diseases”, Yoko Nagamori, DVM, and Mason V. Reichard, MS, PhD, Oklahoma State University, Today’s Veterinary Practice

“Preventing Tick Bites”, Centers For Disease Control

“Think Like a Cat, How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat – Not a Sour Puss”, by Pam Johnson-Bennett, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, Penguin Books, Penguin Group (USA) Inc, New York, NY, 2000, 2011, p. 256

“Tick”, Wikipedia

“Tick-borne Disease in Cats: Two to Watch For”, Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DABVP (feline practice), DVM 360, March 13, 2017

“Tick vs. Flea: How Can I Tell Them Apart?”, Posted by Vanessa Jenkins Green, ABC Home & Commercial blog, Houston, TX, June 5, 2020

“Ticks”, Medical Entomology, Purdue University

“Ticks and Your Cat”, Cornell Feline Health Center, Cornell University College of Veterinarian Medicine

“What Your Cat Wants”, by Francesca Riccomini, Thunder Bay Press, Octopus Publishing Group, San Diego, CA, 2012, p. 40

Updated May 4, 2024

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