While rolling hills filled with lush, green grass and gurgling creeks are beautiful, they can hold a hidden danger—for you and your pets. Where the air is humid or there’s excess moisture, ticks are bountiful. Living in a hot, dry environment can reduce the chance your pet will pick up one or more of these parasitic arachnids, but even desert climates have problem areas. Ticks can carry diseases that are dangerous and potentially deadly so it pays to be a vigilant pet parent.
Both dogs and cats are susceptible to ticks, but dogs are much more likely to become a host than cats. Why? Does dog blood just smell better or are ticks cat haters?
The answer is actually pretty straightforward. Cats are notoriously fastidious when it comes to hygiene, spending approximately 30 – 50% of their time awake grooming themselves, and they are much less likely to explore in heavily wooded areas and by water. With this in mind, this article is more geared toward dog owners, though cat owners can find this information helpful as well.
Where are ticks most common?
Woodpiles, tree lines, fences, fields, and even unkempt lawns and gardens are attractive to ticks, especially in shaded and heavily foliaged areas. Climates that see frequent rainfall or have constant access to water also have a higher likelihood of having ticks. But while the majority of ticks love shady, damp areas, there are a few species found worldwide, such as the brown dog tick. This means that even if you live somewhere dry and arid, your dog is still at risk.
A good rule of thumb is that if you live in an area with mice, birds, or other small mammals, you probably have hungry ticks hanging around who are looking for hosts. And since most environments have small mammals, most environments unfortunately have these parasites.
In a process known as questing, ticks wait for hosts on blades of grass and shrub leaves. When an animal walks by and brushes against the plant, the tick quickly latches onto the host and crawls around for a place to latch on. Common areas include under the ears, the legs, around the mouth and lips, between toes, the groin, and under the tail, but ticks can latch on anywhere.
What diseases can ticks spread?
Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, anaplasmosis, and ehrlichiosis are a few diseases ticks can spread. See below for a brief outline of these diseases but know that there are many more your dog or cat could become infected with. Ask your vet for more information if you are worried about what is most common in your area, or you can check out this article from the American Kennel Club, which elaborates on some of the more prevalent diseases ticks can pass along.
While tick-borne diseases in humans are different than tick-borne diseases for dogs and cats, they can be equally dangerous, so it is important to know what the most common symptoms are. Most diseases are passed onto the host within 12 – 36 hours, making it crucial to check your pet daily.
- Lyme disease: While easily the most well-known disease that ticks can transmit, only about 10% of dogs and cats who are exposed will contract it, and it should be noted that the fatality rate is low when antibiotic treatment is administered. Lyme disease is usually passed by deer ticks, which are found worldwide but are most common where it is moist and humid. For both dogs and cats, symptoms include fever, loss of appetite, lethargy, joint swelling, and discomfort or pain.
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever: Coughing, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, lethargy, and abdominal pain can all be symptoms of RMSF, but symptoms can be vague, so it is important to monitor your pets closely after possible exposure. Blood tests and/or urinalysis are typically used to diagnosis this rapidly progressing disease. While treatment programs are available, between 1 – 10% of infected dogs die, making it vital to monitor for.
- Anaplasmosis: This is a bacterial infection transmitted through a variety of ticks, such as deer ticks, black-legged ticks, and brown dog ticks. Symptoms often include joint pain, lethargy, loss of appetite, and lameness but can also include vomiting, labored breathing, and/or diarrhea. Rarely fatal if treated, most animals recover within thirty days with symptoms decreasing rapidly after treatment begins.
- Ehrlichiosis: Another bacterial infection, this disease can cause fever, respiratory distress (having trouble breathing), weight loss, bleeding disorders, and/or neurological problems. It is categorized into three stages: 1) acute (early infection), 2) sub-clinical (no outward signs), and 3) clinical or chronic (late-stage). It is incredibly important to treat ehrlichiosis before it reaches the clinical stage as it affects the bone marrow and prevents the production of blood cells.
Is there a way I can prevent tick bites?
Most tick-borne infections are transmitted when temperatures are warm, though ticks are active year-round. The best way to minimize tick exposure is to keep your dog or cat from entering tick territory—which is much easier said than done sometimes! In the summertime, try to mow your yard at least once a week, trimming back shrubs and bushes and preventing buildup near your fence or property line. Do not allow leaf litter or other garbage to pile up. As tempting as it is to sleep in on a Saturday morning, it might be best to wake up before it gets too hot and clear out your yard’s trouble spots.
When you take your dog for a walk, you should always keep them on a leash. Not only does this protect them from chasing after small animals, interactions with other potentially less-friendly dogs, and encourages your dog to pay closer attention to you, but it also keeps them on the sidewalk or trail, cutting down chances of them brushing against a tick.
Daily grooming can also help. If your pet was romping in the underbrush or areas with heavy foliage, do a quick run through with a brush and then check the “high risk” areas: the underside of the ears, their legs, between the toes, by their eyes and mouth, under the tail, and around the groin. Chances are, if your pet has picked up a tick, it will be in one of these areas.
There are also several home and yard sprays that are dog and cat safe, which you can find in most pet or big-box retail stores. Your veterinarian can also recommend or prescribe products of medicine, both topical and oral, that your pet could benefit from. Common topical options are Advantix® (dogs only), Frontline Plus®, and Bravecto® (dogs only), while common oral options are Nexgard® (dogs only), Frontline Plus®, and Bravecto® (dogs only).
If you own multiple dogs or cats (or both!), it might behoove you to treat all your animals at the same time. This helps eliminate cross exposure and makes it easier to stay on top of regular preventative care.
Remember: Always consult with your veterinarian before giving your dog or cat medication and on the best tick control practices for your area. Just like you trust your doctor to know what medications and prescriptions are best for you, your veterinarian is a trained professional and an expert in their field.
How do I spot a tick on my dog or cat?
If you believe your dog or cat was exposed to ticks, check the “high risk” areas: the underside of the ears, their legs, between the toes, by their eyes and mouth, under the tail, and around the groin. If you find a tick on your pet, it is more than likely in one of these places. The average tick is between 3mm to 5mm long (roughly sesame seed sized) but can swell up to ten times their size after feeding (about the size of a pencil’s eraser). Typically, the body becomes darker as it fills with blood, turning a deep red brown, almost black.
I just found a tick on my pet, so how do I safely remove it?
As someone who grew up in the Midwest and routinely tromped through fields of waist-deep grass in the countryside, I am intimately familiar with the disgusted, anxious feeling ticks leave you with. But I am also fairly confident with removing the little suckers.
First and foremost, do yourself a favor and wear gloves! Second, while you can pick up a tick removal hook from most pet stores or big-box retail stores, a pair of fine-point tweezers works just fine—just make sure they are fine point. Tweezers with blunt tips can actually rip the tick apart and run the risk of spreading infections into the bite area, same with using your fingers. And trust me, there is little worse than cleaning up tick gunk on a confused, possibly squirming dog. Especially under the tail.
Spread your pet’s fur away from the tick. Using the tweezers or hook, grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Pull upward in a slow, steady motion, taking care not to jerk or pull too roughly. This is to prevent the tick’s mouthpart from remaining embedded in the skin (since ticks do not have a true distinction between their head and body, their jaws are what becomes embedded in skin). Aside from being infinitely gross, this can lead to infection. Ensure that you have removed the entire tick and that there are no more left behind on your pet. Then, clean the area with an alcohol wipe and apply a dab of topical antibiotics.
Once the tick has been removed, place it in a sealed plastic bag or a vial of rubbing alcohol and call your vet. They might want to inspect or otherwise identify it, especially if your pet begins to show symptoms of illness.
If you are not comfortable removing the tick on your own, call your veterinarian to assist you.
When should I call the vet?
If your pet is exhibiting any behavior outside of the norm, especially vomiting, lethargy, lameness, and respiratory distress (having trouble breathing), you should immediately call your veterinarian. This is especially true if you have recently removed a tick and if the area remains irritated after a few days. Bloodwork might be necessary to diagnose your pet’s illness and to determine the best course of action, but your veterinarian has a wide variety of tools at their disposal to figure out what is wrong with your furry friend and to help them recover.
Do I need to worry about my pet infecting me?
In most cases, no. It is rare for your dog or cat to pass along a tick to you, though you should still be watchful. Sometimes, a tick can be carried inside by your pet and fall off its fur, finding itself in your home and searching for another host. Ticks can spread diseases to humans as well, so it is worth practicing good hygiene and performing routine exams, especially if you live in humid or wooded areas or if you have recently traveled to a humid or wooded area. Many of the same “high risk” areas for your pets translate to you as well: around your mouth and eyes, at your hairline, groin area, under your arms, in the crooks of your knees and elbows, and your bellybutton.
Ticks can be scary, there is no doubt about that, and the potential diseases they transmit can be expensive and life-threatening. But with these simple tips and know-how, you can keep both you and your pet safe. So go and enjoy the outdoors with your furbaby! There is a lot to love.