Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.
Q: Why does my veterinarian recommend that my cat wear a tick collar? She spends most of her time indoors, and anyway, I thought cats didn’t get ticks. Is it really necessary?
I hear frequently from clients who believe cats are safe from these bloodsucking pests. The truth is, ticks are just as willing to latch onto cats as they are onto dogs, deer, or humans. With a need for attachment stronger than that of a 10-year-veteran of online dating, ticks grab on with hooklike claws and drill beneath the skin with their razor-sharp mouthpieces to feed on your cat’s blood. Sound gruesome? It’s like a real-life horror flick that can happen inside your house, as well as outside and inside your cat … or you. Ewwwwww.
Beyond the ick factor, there’s a more important reason to keep ticks off cats: Ticks spread disease. Medical entomologists (people who study bugs) like to call ticks the cesspool of nature. Ticks pick up bacteria, protozoa, and viruses from wildlife they feed on, such as deer and rodents. They then transmit those infections to pets and humans when they feed on them.
“Usually they transmit more than just one infection, so it’s not just a single bacteria or single protozoa,” said Dr. Susan E. Little, who teaches veterinary parasitology at Oklahoma State University and is president of the Companion Animal Parasite Council. “Co-infections are almost the norm now; we see co-infections very frequently in dogs and cats, so that’s one major reason we’re worried about ticks.”
We haven’t seen clinical Lyme disease in cats yet, but cats around the country can be infected with other tick-borne diseases. And if a tick attacks your cat, you’re at risk, too. Here are some areas of concern and the ticks that can spread disease to cats and humans.
Ticks in the Northeast
Deer ticks, or black-legged ticks, spread Anaplasma phagocytophilum and Ehrlichia bacteria to cats and Lyme disease to humans. Another tick in this area that may feed on cats or people and cause disease is the brown dog tick, which spreads ehrlichiosis.
Ticks in the South
This is an area of real concern for cat owners. Not only do the same ticks and tick-borne diseases occur here as in the Northeast, it’s also home to the lone star tick, which transmits a potentially fatal disease to cats: cytauxzoonosis. Another tick that can spread this dreaded disease is the American dog tick. Cats with cytauxzoonosis develop a high fever, become depressed, and lose their appetite. Even with treatment, they can die within a week of infection. The mortality rate is more than 50 percent.
Ticks in the Upper Midwest
The same ticks and tick-borne diseases occur here as in the Northeast. Cats in this area are also at risk of cytauxzoonosis.
Ticks on the West Coast
Western black-legged ticks spread Lyme disease to humans and anaplasmosis to cats and humans. The American dog tick is also found in the Pacific Northwest and can spread cytauxzoonosis.
How do I keep ticks away?
A two-step process is necessary to prevent tick-borne diseases from affecting your cat and you. First, you can keep ticks off your cat with a collar embedded with anti-tick compounds. They release slowly, so the collar can be good for as long as eight months. These collars have breakaway designs, making them safe to put on cats. If your cat isn’t used to wearing a collar, she may scratch at it at first, but most adapt to wearing it.
Second, “tickscape” — or maybe a better word is “anti-tickscape” — your yard. Keep the grass cut short, keep foliage trimmed, and remove any brush piles and leaf litter where ticks might hide and wait until your cat comes strolling by. If deer like to visit your lawn, put up tall fences or other barriers to prevent them from grazing near your home.
Tick removal tips
To remove ticks from your cat, use forceps, tweezers, or one of the neat new tick removal tools available online, at camping supply stores, or at pet supply stores. grasp the tick close to the skin, next to the mouth part, and use steady rearward traction to pull it out. Wear gloves so that if the tick goes bust, your skin is protected from infection by his gut contents. flush the creepo and the detritus down the toilet or put it in a container with rubbing alcohol. If you’re worried about removing ticks, take your cat to the veterinarian for safe removal of the nasty beasties.
For more information about tick risk, take a look at Pets and Parasites, which has some good tools for researching ticks and tick-borne infections in your area.
About the author: Dr. Marty Becker, “America’s Veterinarian,” has spent his life working toward better health for pets and the people who love them. The author of 24 books, Dr. Becker was the resident veterinary contributor on Good Morning America for 17 years. He is currently a member of the board of directors of the American Humane Association, as well as its chief veterinary correspondent; a founding member of Core Team Oz for The Dr. Oz Show; and a member of the Dr. Oz Medical Advisory Board. When his schedule allows, he practises at North Idaho Animal Hospital. Connect with him on Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, and Google Plus.