Roaming the great outdoors is enriching and provides great exercise for your cat. But ticks – those tiny blood-sucking pests – can transmit disease to outdoor cats and their humans. So knowing how to deal with ticks on cats is a must for any cat parent. Discover everything you need to know about tick risks, detection, treatment, and prevention for your feline in this post.

What are ticks and what do they look like?

Ticks have eight legs, are related to spiders, and belong to the group called arachnids. Ticks are oval-shaped, and they can be as small as a poppy seed.

close up of tick hanging off the leaf of a plant

These creatures feed on the blood of the animal they have landed on by embedding their mouthparts in the host’s skin. A tick may remain attached to the host for several days, ingesting blood and swelling to about the size of a small pea, then dropping off.

While attached to the host, microbes within the tick can be transferred into the bloodstream of the host. Some of these microbes can cause disease.

How do cats get ticks?

If your cat spends any time outdoors, they may encounter ticks. Ticks live in wooded or grassy areas such as forests, fields, and meadows. Ticks can’t fly or jump. Instead, they sit on the tips of grasses and plants and wait for an animal (such as your cat) to pass by. As your cat brushes against the vegetation, the tick grabs onto your cat’s fur and climbs on.  The tick then makes its way toward the skin, where it attaches to the cat by biting the skin. 

Ticks can also get onto your cat from another animal that they encounter when they are roaming outside. 

If you walk outdoors a lot, check yourself for ticks on returning home – you could pass the tick onto your cat. 

What do ticks look like on cats?

Generally, a tick on a cat should be big enough to spot1. You can check for ticks on cats by running your hands along your cat’s body when they come inside after being outdoors. If your cat has a tick, it will feel like a small numb on your cat’s skin. Upon closer inspection, a tick on a cat looks like so:

Tick bite on dog

What are the different types of ticks?

There are over 800 species of ticks worldwide – but only a dozen or so are associated with disease in cats1.

There are 15 species of ticks in US. The most common are the American dog tick, lone star tick, deer or black-legged tick, and brown dog tick.

Symptoms of ticks on cats 

If a tick bites your cat, you might observe itching, redness or irritation at the bite site. If no disease is transmitted from tick to cat, then the actual tick on your cat is the only symptom you can look for.

However, if your cat shows any of the following symptoms, they may be suffering from a tick-borne illness:

What diseases can cats get from tick bites? 

Tick-borne diseases in cats are rare, but they can occur. The diagnosis is made by noting the symptoms that the cat is experiencing and the fact that the cat had a tick bite.

  • Lyme disease is well-known as a tick-borne disease in humans. It is unlikely to occur in cats, but it can happen. There is no vaccine for Lyme disease, but if a cat is diagnosed early, the infection can be treated with antibiotics. 
  • Tularemia or rabbit fever is an uncommon infection in cats. It can be transmitted through tick bites or if a cat eats an infected rabbit. 
  • Cytauxzoonosis, also known as bobcat fever, is a tick-borne illness most often seen in wild bobcats, but it can affect all types of cats. 

Not all of these diseases are present in all parts of the world. 

How to check for ticks on cats

You’ll probably feel a tick before you see it on your cat, because a cat’s dense fur makes it hard to find a tick. Run your hands over your cat’s entire body each evening after they have been outdoors. (Bonus: you and your kitty will bond over this extended petting session!) Feel for small bumps on the skin. Ticks are usually found on a cat’s head, neck, ears, or feet. Check between the toes, too.       

What to do if you find a tick on your cat?

Even if disease transmission is unlikely, you still want to remove the tick from your cat and dispose of it properly so it doesn’t drop off and bite you or another person or pet in the household. Here’s what to do if you find a tick on your cat.

If the tick is NOT attached to the skin

For the first few minutes or hours after a tick lands on your cat, it may crawl around looking for a suitable place to attach itself to the skin. If you see a tick crawling on your cat, put on gloves, pick the tick off (with your fingers or tweezers), and kill it immediately. Dropping the tick in a jar of rubbing alcohol or bleach is the best way to kill a tick instantly. Note: Ticks can survive being flushed down the toilet or even going through the washer and dryer! 

Disinfect any items that touched the tick. Wash your hands thoroughly after touching a tick. 

If the tick is attached to the skin

Once the tick embeds its mouthparts in the skin, you can’t just pick it off. You must take careful steps to get the tick to release its mouthparts that are embedded in the skin. To remove an attached tick properly, you will need:

  • Gloves (Infectious organisms can be transmitted from the tick through mucous membranes or breaks in the skin)
  • Another person to help hold the cat
  • A tick removal tool
  • Antiseptic wipes or rubbing alcohol
  • A container to put the tick in after removal

How to remove a tick from a cat

To remove the attached tick, take these steps:

  1. Put on your gloves.
  2. Have the other person hold the cat snugly.
  3. Separate the fur to get a good view of the tick. Position the tool around the tick’s body, close to the cat’s skin. Pull the tool carefully to dislodge the tick. Go slowly. Double check that the mouthparts are on the tick and did not remain in your cat’s skin. 
  4. Put the tick in the container with rubbing alcohol. Keep the tick for a few days. If your cat develops an illness, it may be useful to have the tick available for identification by your veterinarian. 
  5. Disinfect your tick removal tool. 
  6. Wash your hands.

Contact your veterinarian if you have questions or suspect an illness after seeing ticks on your cat. A tick typically needs to be attached to your cat for more than 24 hours to transmit infections such as Lyme disease. 

cat sitting outside in grass in the shade of a lawn chair

How to prevent ticks on cats

No one wants to have ticks on their pets or on themselves. You have many tick prevention options to keep your cat safe from tick bites.

Keep your cat indoors

The number one way to keep ticks off your cat is to keep your kitty indoors, away from tick-infested areas. If you have an indoor/outdoor cat, try to limit outdoor time or keep your cat away from brushy or forested areas. Check them daily for ticks. To give your cat safe access to the outdoors, a catio can be a perfect solution!

Track your outdoor cat

Outdoor cats enjoy their freedom, but are more exposed to danger when they’re allowed to roam free. You might want to know where they go, and make sure they avoid tick-invested areas. For this, a Tractive GPS Cat Tracker can help you keep an eye on your cat at all times. You can even see their territory on the map, and monitor their activity level.

Know everywhere your cat goes

See where they are in real-time, no matter how far they go. Get alerts if they roam too far home. Find out where they’ve been and discover their favorite spots. Let others track with you.

Discover Cat GPS Trackers

Brush regularly

If your cat does go outside, be sure to brush them and search for signs of ticks regularly. Brushing will help remove any ticks that have not attached yet. Remember it’s essential to remove a tick as soon as you find it, ideally before they can latch on to your cat.

Spot-on treatments

These liquid medications are applied monthly onto your cat’s skin. The substances are absorbed into the cat’s circulatory system. When a tick ingests your cat’s blood, the medication kills the tick rapidly. 

Tick collars

These collars also protect against fleas. But the collar can get caught on branches or fences and cause harm to your cat. 

Oral medications

Not many options are available for cats when it comes to oral medication to treat ticks, but you may find that this is the right option for you. Talk to your veterinarian. 

Tick shampoos

These treatments can be purchased over the counter. Tick shampoos are inexpensive but require you to give your cat a bath every two weeks. The shampoo kills ticks on contact. 

Tick powders 

These treatments kill and repel ticks. Make sure you purchase a product meant for ticks and fleas, not just fleas. To apply, rub the fine dust onto the cat’s skin. Keep the powder away from your eyes and your cat’s eyes. Apply weekly. 

Tick sprays

Another cat tick treatment is a spray purchased over the counter. These sprays kill ticks quickly and provide residual protection. This could be an option if your cat spends significant time outdoors. 

Talk to your vet

Can’t decide how to approach tick prevention for your cat? Your veterinarian is an invaluable source of advice and can help you sort through the pros and cons of each treatment. 

All of the chemical treatments listed above come with the risk of side effects. If you have small children at home, you may need to keep a recently-treated cat away from them after applying the treatment. Never use tick products meant for a dog on your cat. They can be toxic and cause seizures.

Extra tip: Treat the house and lawn

Ticks thrive in heavy vegetation. Reduce ticks in your yard by keeping grass, shrubs and trees trimmed. Household and yard sprays are available to treat your entire dwelling and yard. Be aware that these treatments can harm humans, other animals, and fish (though runoff). Consider hiring an exterminator if you have a severe problem. 

Keep your cat safe from tick bites to prevent disease and enjoy more time together!