Cats and ticks

Ticks are small parasites which feed on blood. They attach themselves to the host by inserting their claws (cutting mandibles) and feeding tube into the skin. Their feeding tube is covered in small teeth which ticks use to cut through the skin. Once firmly attached they feed on the host blood storing the blood in the sac which fills up within a couple of days. Once the sac is full (3-4 days after attachment) the tick will usually drop off for a digestive siesta. This is also the time when the females will lay eggs (thousands of them).

While many tick bites are relatively harmless, some ticks carry serious diseases, which they pass to the host by injecting their saliva when they bite. It is therefore very important to regularly check your cat for ticks. If a tick is found it should be removed as soon as possible, because its saliva will keep flowing as long as it is attached. When removing a tick from your cat always wear gloves. Many diseases transmitted by ticks are as dangerous to humans as they are to cats. Removing tick is not always straightforward since the head is often embedded within the skin and the tick has to be removed completely. Here is a video showing how to check your cat for ticks and how to remove the tick:

Some cats are allergic to tick bites. With such cats the bite area becomes painfully inflamed causing the cat to lick at the area and worry it so much that it becomes ulcerated. The area of the bite is often very sensitive and in such cases it may be better to take the cat to the vet to get the tick removed safely with minimum stress for the cat.

Where can the ticks be found?

Ticks can be found in most wooded or forested regions throughout the world. Though most active in in warm weather, ticks can attack at any time of the year. Generally however changes in temperature and day length are among the factors which tell a tick it is time to seek a host.

They generally lurk in tall grass where they wait patiently for a passing animal to attach themselves to. They are especially common in areas where there are deer trails or human tracks. They are especially abundant near water, where warm-blooded animals come to drink, and in meadows wherever shrubs and brush provide woody surfaces and cover.

Ticks can detect heat emitted or carbon dioxide breathed by their victims. As a host passes by, the tick lets go of the branch or blade of grass it is on and clings to the leg or whatever part of the host it can. It then crawls to a comfortable spot and begins sucking blood. Some ticks are very small and hard to see - a tick as small as the full-stop at the end of this sentence can still cause problems.

Tick associated diseases

One of the nastiest diseases transmitted by ticks is Lyme disease. This is a serious illness for both humans and cats. It is caused by the Borrelia bacteria are carried inside Ixodes ticks. These ticks are typically found in grassland or woodland and feed on deer, sheep, horses and rodents though they will also bite cats, dogs and humans. North Americans had have to deal with this disease for decades and now it is slowly spreading across Europe. Lyme disease is still relatively rare in the UK, but hotter summers are causing an increased incidence of the disease. According to' Which Way to Health Magazine' a particular problem with Lyme in the UK is that it is frequently misdiagnosed by doctors (and vets) who are unfamiliar with the symptoms.

Symptoms of Lyme disease in cats include loss of appetite, a raised temperature, lethargy, lameness, painful joints and a enlarged lymph nodes. Because these symptoms can be associated with many diseases, it is often only diagnosed when the owner discovers ticks on the cat. A blood test can confirm Lyme disease and treatment is a course of antibiotics that lasts four to six weeks. However, treatment is only really effective soon after infection, so speedy diagnosis and medication is important.

Another very serious disease associated with tick bites is cytauxzoonosis. Though fortunately still rare, Cytauxzoonosis is a serious, and usually fatal, protozoal disease. It affects domestic cats in the south-central and southeastern United States. The disease is asymptomatic (shows no symptoms) for the first 20 days. Thereafter the infectious organisms home into the cat's blood vessels and begin to multiply. Once the cat shows symptoms, immediate treatment is vital, as otherwise she will probably die within seven days from massive organ failure and bleeding. Even with treatment those working with the disease say the mortality rate is about 95 percent.

Finally, there is feline haemobartonellosis - also known as mycoplasmosis, or feline infectious anemia. This is caused mainly by tick-carried Mycoplasma haemofelis, though another bacteria associated with feline mycoplasmosis is M. haemominutum. This is also transmitted by ticks (or sometimes fleas) but it is much less pathogenic - in other words less likely to cause disease.

Once a cat is infected with mycoplasma, the disease establishes itself within red blood cells. The red blood cells are destroyed by the infection which causes anaemia. In cats this can very from mild anemia to very severe. Cats which already have problems such as Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) are more likely to suffer severely.

The typical signs of an anemic cat include depression, loss of appetite, and dehydration. Ppronounced anemia can cause weight loss, pale mucous membranes, weakness, fast heart and respiratory rates, jaundice and death. The disease is usually treated with a course of antibiotics. Some cats may recover but become carriers of mycoplasma. So it is important to check for this later.

Because ticks can be hard to detect, and not all cats will allow you to search through their fur for anything on their skin, you can lower the risk of a bite by keeping your cat away from areas where ticks lurk, or if this is impossible, combing your cat as soon afterwards as you can in the hope of combing the tick out before it becomes attached. (Do not do this where the tick might fall and attach itself to a human or climb back on to the cat later.) Combing is particularly effective where the cat has had a 'spot' anti-parasite treatment which makes its skin less attractive to biting parasites in the first place.

Note: This information is for guidance only. It is not intended to replace consultation with a licensed practitioner.

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