What are ticks? And why are dogs at risk?
Ticks are not insects, they are arthropods. I think of ticks as spiders’ nasty little cousins. Their hard outer shell helps them withstand dry conditions and survive long cold winters without feeding. The primary food source of ticks is the blood of other animals making them a very effective transmitter of diseases.
Ticks like to hang out on tall grass, bushes, or brush. Unlike fleas, ticks do not jump. They stretch their front legs out to act as feelers and grab onto any living creature that goes by. From there, they crawl through the fur until they find the perfect place and settle in for feeding. As the tick bites, it secretes a substance that acts like a glue to adhere itself to the skin so that the tick doesn’t fall off when the animal is moving around or scratching at themselves. The tick will feed for days until it becomes fully engorged, then the female will lay eggs. Some species of ticks can lay up to 6000 eggs a day.
With a few exceptions, ticks can be found almost anywhere there is tall grass, brush, or bushes. If your dog spends any time outside, she is likely to encounter ticks. Some ticks can be as small as a sesame seed and can be almost impossible to find in your pet’s coat, which is why tick prevention is so important.
How can you protect your dog from ticks?
There are many tick prevention products on the market and your veterinarian can help determine which product is best for your dog. I have been practicing in an area heavily populated with deer ticks for over fifteen years and I have seen a lot of ticks and tick-borne illnesses. Based on my experience, the chewable tick preventative products in the isooxazoline class of drugs are the most effective at killing ticks thus far. Products in this class include Bravecto, Credelio, Nexgard, and Simparica. These products will start killing ticks within twenty-four hours and are effective for 30 days or more. Isooazolines are prescription only and must be prescribed by your veterinarian.
For dogs can’t take the chewable tick preventatives for a variety of reasons, there are many topical tick preventatives available both over the counter and by prescription. The effectiveness depends on a number of factors, including how the product is applied, the size of your dog, what other animals are in the household, and how much time she spends in the water.
Tick collars used to the be mainstay in tick prevention. However, they are often not effective enough to prevent ticks all over the body. In addition, the products on tick collars can make some animals lethargic, nauseated, or cause twitching. The exception to this is the Seresto collar, which has been found to be safe and effective for dogs.
Preventatives go a long way in protecting your dog from ticks. However, no product is 100% effective. It is important to check yourself and your dog when you come back from a tick-inhabited area. To check for ticks on your dog, run your hands over her entire body. Ticks like to attach and feed around the head, ears, neck, and feet, but can be found anywhere throughout the body so it is important to check everywhere.
To remove an attached tick from the body, grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. It may help to use either a tweezers or a commercially available “tick remover”. Gently pull straight up and the tick should come off. Do not twist as this can cause the mouth parts to break off. If you think the head of the tick was left in the skin, gently squeeze the area and try grasp with tweezers to remove it. If you are not able to remove the head, it is not a concern. The dog’s body will break down the tick head and the area will heal over the course of a few days. DO NOT use a lit match to try get the tick to back out. This is not successful and can cause harm to your pet’s skin. Often times after you remove a tick, there is a small lump in the skin. This is normal and does not mean the area is infected. The tick has caused a local reaction, like a mosquito bite, and it will get better within a few days. Once you remove a tick, you can dispose of it by putting it in a jar with alcohol, placing it in a sealed plastic bag, or flushing down the toilet. Do not try to squeeze the tick between your fingers as this can transmit diseases to you.
Why do we need to worry about ticks?
I think we can all agree that ticks are gross. But aside from the “ewww factor”, why are we so concerned about ticks on your dog? Ticks can transfer many diseases to our pets, including Lyme, Anaplasma, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and Ehrlichia. There are probably many other diseases they transmit that are just being discovered. These diseases can cause minor illnesses, such as a fever and painful joints, or life-threatening conditions such as bleeding disorders and kidney failure. Although rare, ticks can also secrete a toxin that causes progressive paralysis in dogs.
If you are unsure if there are ticks in your area and what diseases your pet is at risk for, I recommend looking at the website www.petsandparasites.org. The website has prevalence maps that are updated regularly to help inform you how prevalent a disease is in your area and forecast the spread of parasites and diseases in our pets.
Ticks are hearty creatures that seem to be expanding their territories every year. Make sure that you are protecting your pet with good parasiticides, regular tick checks, and vaccinating against Lyme disease if Lyme is endemic to your area. Talk with your veterinarian about what tick preventative is best for your dog and when you should be using preventatives.