How to spot a tick on your cat or dog

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Ticks are masters of hiding and can be difficult to spot if they have latched onto your pet. Learn what ticks look like, why they are problematic for our pets, how to check for them and what to do if you spot one.

What does a tick look like? How to spot a tick on your cat or dog.

If your pet ventures outside it is worthwhile knowing how to identify ticks so you can carry out regular checks.

What does a tick look like?

While there are more than 850 species of ticks worldwide, New Zealand is very fortunate that we only have one major species established here that affects our domestic animals. The species Haemphysalis longicornis, also known as the ‘cattle tick’ or ‘bush tick’.

This parasite is most often encountered throughout the North Island, in part of the Tasman, West Coast and even Marlborough. These ticks see our pets as an ideal food source and can cause significant discomfort to the animals when feeding. All stages of this tick’s lifecycle; the larvae, nymphs and adults are capable of biting and irritating your pet.    

  • Tick larvae are about the size of a grain of sand and can be seen as red or black specks.
  • Tick nymphs are slightly larger than the larvae, about the size of a sesame seed.
  • Unfed adults are about the size of an apple seed, flattened and teardrop shaped. They are typically brown in colour, with a characteristic darker brown area around their mouth parts.
  • After feeding, adult ticks become engorged with blood and are noticeably larger than unfed ticks – about 1cm long.

Why are ticks problematic for cats and dogs?

  • Tick worry is seen as irritation and discomfort at the site of attachment leading to the causing self-trauma
  • Secondary bacterial infections can occur at the site of attachment
  • In large numbers, these ticks can also cause anaemia due  to extensive blood loss, particularly in small, young animals
  • The sight of ticks attached to a dog or cat can be quite distressing

How to find ticks on your cat or dog.

Regularly looking for ticks on your pet can help protect them and give you and your family peace of mind. Your pet is most at risk of acquiring a tick after visiting areas with livestock, entering long grass or the bush.

These tips will help you properly check for ticks:

  1. Run your fingers through your cat or dog’s fur. Ticks, particularly well fed ones, feel like small firm and rounded bumps on the surface of the animal’s skin.
  2. Focus your search on your pet’s neck, ‘armpits’, head, ears and feet including between the footpads and toes. Tick’s can also be found in the mouth! Also check under any gear the animal is wearing like collars or harnesses. Ticks are more likely to feed where the animal’s coat is shorter and the skin is exposed, but they can still hideaway amongst a long coat. 
    Note: Usually by the time you spot a tick, it has already latched onto your cat or dog to begin feeding. However, sometimes you will catch an unfed tick wandering across the pet’s fur, looking for its next meal!
  3. Occasionally, people mistake a small skin lump or a nipple on their pet for a tick. If you are trying to distinguish whether it is a tick, check closely for the legs of the parasite. If you’re unsure or worried about your pet, leave it to the experts and take them in to be checked by your vet.

What to do if you find a tick on you cat or dog.

If you find a tick on your pet, don’t panic, and don’t pull it off with your fingers. Again, we are incredibly fortunate that in New Zealand our species of ticks do not cause significant tick-borne disease e.g. tick paralysis, lyme disease, blood parasites etc., that give them such a bad reputation worldwide. This means we do not face the same urgency to rapidly remove ticks as owners do in other countries. There is no need to stress out your pet, and it is important that we use the proper technique when removing ticks so that we don’t leave parts behind.

Read our guide to help you safely remove ticks from your pets.

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