How to check your dog for tick bites

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How to check your dog for tick bites - a husky laying down as a person checks their fur

Ticks are a common external parasite found on dogs. Pet parents need to know how to check their dogs for ticks and how to remove them safely. Read on to find answers to questions such as:

  • How did my dog get ticks?
  • How do I perform tick checks on my dog?
  • How should I remove ticks from my dog?
  • Can ticks make my dog sick?

The United States and Canada have multiple types of ticks that can bite and spread disease to dogs and pet parents. While most tick bites do not result in illness, removing ticks quickly and safely is important, as is providing tick prevention to keep a dog healthy and happy.

How do dogs get ticks?

Ticks are small external parasites that wait for hosts in tall grasses and brush outdoors. There are multiple tick species found around the United States and Canada. When hungry, a tick will sit with its legs outstretched and grab onto a dog as it passes. Once it grabs on, the tick will crawl to a preferred feeding place and bite the dog.

An attached tick feeds on a dog’s blood until full. Engorged ticks then fall off and don’t search for a new host until they get hungry again. Ticks do not eat frequently, and may go a whole season without eating depending on where they’re at in their life cycle. Ticks are usually found near wooded, shrubby, and grassy areas frequented by wildlife. Dogs who visit these areas are the most likely to become infested, but ticks can find their way into a backyard when carried by people, wild animals, or other pets.

How do I check my dog for ticks?

Make sure you check your dog daily for ticks, especially during peak tick season in the warmer months. Even if you’re using a veterinarian-approved tick control product, some ticks may still attach before they die, so it is important to find and remove them in a timely manner. Attached ticks are located on the surface of the skin. They can be difficult to spot, especially smaller species of ticks, but can be felt. To find ticks on a dog, run your fingers through the fur and over the skin with gentle pressure, feeling for any abnormal bumps. There is often a small, scabby sore or a small amount of dried blood around the bite area. If you need assistance checking your dog for ticks, an online vet can direct you from home.

Where are a tick’s favorite hiding spots on a dog?

Ticks can bite and attach anywhere on the body. However, they prefer to hide in areas with thinner skin and out of reach from easily groomed or scratched areas. When checking your dog for ticks, pay particularly close attention to:

  • In and around the ears
  • Around the eyelids
  • On the neck and under the collar
  • Under the front legs
  • Between the back legs
  • Between the toes
  • Around the tail base and anus

Don’t confuse your dog’s nipples for ticks. All dogs, regardless of sex, have nipples that can feel like ticks when performing a tick check. Always ensure the bump is a tick before attempting to remove it.

How often should I check my dog for ticks?

Regular tick checks in the spring, summer, and fall months are important for all dogs across North America where ticks are numerous. However, daily checks are best for dogs:

  • In endemic areas
  • Who live around wild or wooded, shrubby, tall-grass areas
  • Who have wild animals come into the yard
  • Who hike or run with owners on trails

Daily tick checks are still important for dogs on tick control products because even the most effective products do not fully prevent all ticks from crawling onto your dog or attaching to their skin. Low-risk dogs outside of heavy tick population areas still need to be checked regularly. Ticks and tick-borne illnesses can be found in all 50 U.S. states and across Canada.

What is the best tick-removal method for dogs?

To remove a tick  from a dog, use a pair of clean tweezers to grasp the tick at the surface of the skin, pull straight outward until the skin tents, and wait for the tick to release. Wash the area and your hands with soap and water or rubbing alcohol. Other tick removal tools can be used but are not necessary to purchase. When removing, do not twist or crush the tick. Always wear gloves to prevent illness transmission to yourself. Do not use other removal methods such as petroleum jelly, alcohol, baby oil, or a lit match. These methods do not work and can cause more damage.

It’s a common misconception that you must take extra effort to avoid leaving the head of the tick in the skin. Ticks insert their mouth parts into the skin, but not their heads. This myth persists because even when a tick is properly removed it leaves an inflamed, crater-like sore with a dark spot at the center. If the tick breaks apart during removal, don’t try to dig any remaining pieces out of the skin. A dog’s body will naturally push out any tick material over time, and you can do more harm than good attempting to dig it out. If your dog is not already on tick prevention, talk to a vet about finding a safe and effective option. Tick preventatives keep ticks from biting or kill ticks quickly after biting to prevent the spread of tick-borne illnesses.

Why are tick bites dangerous for dogs?

Although most tick bites result in nothing more than a small, scabby sore that heals in a few weeks, ticks can carry life-threatening diseases. Skin wounds from tick bites and excessive scratching can result in infection. It is also possible for dogs to carry infected ticks into the yard or home, where they can bite another family member.

What are the signs of tick-borne diseases in dogs?

Different tick-borne illnesses have varying symptoms that range in severity. Some infected dogs may not show any symptoms at all. The most common signs of tick-borne diseases in dogs include:

Symptoms of tick borne illnesses are nonspecific and can point to a number of other conditions. Any time a dog displays these symptoms, consult a veterinarian.

Symptoms do not appear for weeks to months after the initial bite. “Always monitor your pet for signs of illness like appetite loss and lethargy, whether you’ve seen a tick on them or not,” explains Dr. Jo Myers, a Vetster veterinarian. “Symptoms of any tick-borne illnesses won’t arise until long after the bite has healed, and most dogs diagnosed with a tick-borne illness don't have a specific known history of tick exposure.”

What do I do if I find a tick on my dog?

Ticks are common external parasites on dogs. If you find a tick on your dog, quickly and safely remove it. Dispose of the tick by dropping it in rubbing alcohol, wrapping it tightly with tape, or flushing it down a toilet. Thoroughly check the rest of the dog, yourself, and other people or pets in the household for ticks. Consider tick prevention if your dog is not currently on any parasite preventives. It’s also important to remember that finding ticks on your dog doesn’t mean your tick prevention isn’t working since many effective products don’t actually repel ticks.

In the case of heavy infestation, consult a veterinarian who can help treat the infestation and any secondary conditions or symptoms. If you have questions or concerns about checking your dog for ticks, a veterinarian can provide you with answers in a virtual vet appointment from the comfort of your home.

FAQ - How to check your dog for ticks

How do I make sure my dog is tick-free?

Regular tick checks are essential for all of our furry friends in North America during the warm months of the year. Daily checks are best in endemic areas, especially if the dog frequents wooded, brushy, or grassy areas. Administer vet-approved tick prevention to provide protection against ticks and tick borne illness. If you find a tick, remove it quickly and safely with a pair of tweezers or other tick removal tools, but never use alternative forms of removal such as petroleum jelly, a hot match, or rubbing alcohol.

What is the easiest way to check a dog for ticks?

To check your pet for ticks, firmly rub your fingers over the skin and through the fur to check for abnormal bumps. A small sore will likely be at the bite location as well. All dogs, regardless of sex, have nipples on the abdomen that can feel like ticks when performing checks. Double-check that the bump is a tick before attempting to remove it.

Can dogs on tick prevention medication still get ticks?

Yes, dogs on a tick preventative can still get ticks. Some preventatives kill a tick within 24 hours of biting a dog. This means the bite will still occur but lasts a shorter period of time, preventing the spread of diseases.