What Is a Tick? - Cat Info Detective

What Is a Tick?

Skye Blake looking left through magnifying glass

Greetings, curious cats! Skye Blake, 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.

paw prints coming in from a distance

What Is a Tick?

tick
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. 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”.

kitten hunting in grass

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

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

Little Bloodsuckers

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”1Overview of Tickborne Diseases“, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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
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. 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.

cat sitting in the woods

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

How Do Ticks Transmit Diseases to Cats?

Deer Tick
Deer Tick
Photo by Scott Bauer2This 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.

There are about 12 species that transmit any significant illness to cats. This sounds like a lot but most don’t carry disease.

dewdrops on grass

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.

cat

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

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 it quickly it’s unlikely your cat will have any problem. You’ll just need to watch for any 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 the 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.

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.

veterinarian

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 walk 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 only 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
yard

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!

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…

Suffocation

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).

empty jar with lid

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.

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.

Fire

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

Essential Oils

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.

essential oil samples for fleas on cats

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

Any oils must be extremely diluted to be in dosages safe for cats. They should only be used under the direction of a knowledgeable veterinarian.

Reputable commercial flea and tick products made specifically for cats are in the proper dilution ratios. See “WHAT ARE ESSENTIAL OILS… DO THEY KILL FLEAS ON CATS?” for more about these.

Water

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

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 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

It’s recommended to not 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 so the head can be removed 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 suggestions you can try.

If possible, wear gloves and push away any fur around the tick. Gently rotate the 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.

YouTube Videos

Cameras for videos

You might find these YouTube videos helpful that show a couple different tick removal methods you can use.

As you’ll see some people use methods that others say not to do (like twisting the body) but each seems to be effective at removing the ticks.

tabby hunting in grass where ticks might be

“How to Remove a Tick from a Cat”, The Guardians Choice, January 7, 2020

“How to Remove a Tick With a Thread From a Cat”, Kitten Street, November 1, 2019

“Safe & Easy Tick Removal, No Tweezers and No Pain”, Mick Phillips, July 7, 2014

“Vet Tutorial… How to Remove a Tick From a Dog” (works the same for a cat), Dr. Clayton Greenway, Healthcare For Pets, November 15, 2018

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 being transmitted. Some are…

  • Petroleum jelly (doesn’t suffocate them)
  • Glue
  • 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 it’s stomach contents to come out and if that goes into an open wound (like the bite) it increases your chances of disease being transmitted.

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)3 “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.

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
  • 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

cat scratching a branch

These related pages deal with getting rid of fleas on cats. Many products and treatments are for prevention of both fleas and ticks.

Always talk to your vet before applying any treatments to your kitty.

We felines are extra-sensitive to many things and some over-the-counter products are dangerous and/or ineffective.

What Is a Flea? What Does It Look Like?How to Kill Fleas on Kittens, Senior & Sick Cats
Ways to Get Rid of Fleas on Healthy Cats!Is a Flea Treatment with Chemicals Safe for My Cat?
What Chemical Ingredients Are in Flea Products?What is a Natural Flea Treatment for My Cat?
Getting Rid of Fleas…For Cats Only!Flea Control, the Homemade Way…
What Are Essential Oils…Do They Kill Fleas on Cats? Natural Flea Remedies You Can Buy
Flea Cat Collars

SOURCES

Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary. Primary are always preferable and have the most reliable information because primary sources are 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. Thus, when I use secondary sources most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.

LIST OF SOURCES

(Links given here are for your information only… I make no money from them.)

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

A-M

“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

Healthline

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

MedicineNet

N-Z

“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-Borne Diseases and Your Cat“, Nipper’s Corner Pet Medical Center, June 5, 2018

“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