Ticks are a growing problem in North America as their habitat and populations continue to increase due to climate change. Dogs, like humans, can contract tick-related illnesses as well as uncomfortable or even life-threatening infections and conditions. Read on to find answers to questions like:
Tick-borne diseases are uncommon in dogs but can be dangerous when they do occur. In addition, dogs can carry infected adult ticks indoors where they may crawl onto you and other people and pets in the home. It is important for pet owners to know how to identify and remove ticks safely to prevent the spread of disease.
Ticks are blood-sucking parasites that feed on various animal species, including dogs and humans. There are multiple species of ticks that can affect dogs. Ticks attach to the skin with their mouthparts while their legs and bodies remain outside, appearing as small bumps on the surface of a dog’s skin. Some smaller tick species or recently attached ticks may be difficult to see but can be felt. As they feed, ticks swell larger making them easier to see. Engorged ticks will fall off on their own after a few days.
To check for ticks, run your hands over your dog’s skin with gentle pressure to feel for any abnormal bumps. Pay particular attention to the inside and around the ears, the base of the tail, and in between the toes, though keep in mind ticks can attach anywhere on the body. When feeling for ticks, remember that all dogs, regardless of sex, have nipples on their abdomen that can feel similar to ticks but have a different appearance. If you need assistance checking your dog for ticks, an online vet can show you how to properly check your pet from home.
Use a pair of tweezers to grasp the tick close to the skin surface, firmly pull it straight outward until the skin tents, and wait for the tick to release. Do not twist or crush the tick during removal as this can cause the spread of tick-borne diseases to you and your dog. Always wear gloves during tick removal. Do not use alternative removal methods, such as petroleum jelly, baby oil, or a lit match to remove ticks on dogs. These methods do not work and can cause more damage. Safely dispose of the tick in rubbing alcohol, wrap it tightly with tape, or flush it down a toilet.
“Most ticks are not carrying diseases and their bites simply result in an inflamed or scabbed sore, ” explains Dr. Jo Myers, a veterinarian at Vetster. “However, dogs can contract tick-borne illnesses from infected ticks.” These diseases can be life-threatening to dogs and people. An infected tick does not transmit disease immediately after biting, so quick removal and tick prevention are important. Symptoms of tick-borne diseases do not appear for weeks to months after attachment.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that is spread primarily by black-legged ticks, though other species of ticks can carry the disease. Most cases of Lyme disease result after a tick has been attached for 36 to 48 hours. Most dogs infected with the tick-borne bacteria that causes Lyme don’t get sick at all. Many perfectly healthy dogs are identified as Lyme-positive during routine annual screening. Dogs who actually develop symptoms of Lyme disease show fever, joint pain and swelling, enlarged lymph nodes, lameness, and lethargy. In rare cases, Lyme disease causes life-threatening kidney disease. Dogs with Lyme disease do not develop a bullseye rash like humans do. Treatment includes antibiotics and supportive care.
Also known as hemorrhagic fever, ehrlichiosis is a bacterial infection spread primarily by the brown dog tick, but other species may carry the disease as well. It can be found worldwide but is endemic to the Southeastern and Southwestern United States. Clinical signs of ehrlichiosis include fever, anorexia, and a low platelet count which can cause nosebleeds, anemia, and bruising. The disease has three stages: acute, subclinical, and chronic. Prompt treatment of hemorrhagic fever typically results in a good prognosis, but once it is chronic, the prognosis is poor. Treatment includes antibiotics, blood transfusions if the platelet count is low, and supportive care.
Anaplasmosis is a bacterial infection spread by the black-legged tick or the deer tick. Most dogs who test positive for anaplasmosis show few to no symptoms. For those who do have symptoms, they can include fever, swollen or painful joints, stiffness, lameness, lethargy, and a low platelet count. Low platelets result in symptoms such as nosebleeds, easy bruising, and anemia or pale gums. Treatment includes antibiotics and symptomatic care, including potential blood transfusions for low platelet count.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a bacterial infection spread by the American dog tick, Rocky Mountain wood tick, and the brown deer tick. Despite its name, Rocky Mountain spotted fever can occur anywhere in the world, including North, Central, and South America. In fact, over 50% of cases are found in Arkansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, and none of these states are in the Rocky Mountains. Clinical signs include fever, loss of appetite, swollen lymph nodes, and joint pain. Occasionally, neurological symptoms and symptoms associated with a low platelet count are seen in infected dogs. Overall, the disease is rare in dogs. Treatment includes antibiotics and symptomatic treatment.
Babesiosis is a parasitic infection spread by infected ticks, bites from infected dogs, through the placenta, and contact with the blood of an infected animal. The disease results in breakdown of red blood cells causing symptoms such as lethargy, anemia, and jaundice. Most babesiosis cases are found in the Northeast United States, Florida, and Eastern Canada. Treatment includes antimalarial and antibiotic medications, fluid therapy, and in some cases, blood transfusions.
Bartonellosis is a bacterial infection that is commonly known as “cat scratch disease” because many cases result from a cat scratch. Both fleas and ticks can carry this bacteria, and infection results when the bacteria enters the host’s bloodstream. The disease targets blood vessels of organs causing clinical signs such as lameness, nose bleeds, weakness, and anemia. Treatment includes antibiotics and supportive care, including potential blood transfusions.
Hepatozoonosis is a protozoan infection that occurs after a dog ingests an infected tick or prey animal. It is most commonly found in the Southern U.S. and causes a reluctance to move, fever, muscle loss, and anemia. Hepatozoonosis is debilitating and often fatal in dogs. Treatment involves antiprotozoal medications and supportive care, including pain management, fluid therapy, and anti-inflammatories.
Tick paralysis is a condition caused by a neurotoxin found in tick saliva. The toxin is found in multiple species of ticks in warm, humid areas of North American countries and Australia. Clinical signs include weakness or paralysis beginning in the hind legs, change to the bark, difficulty breathing, difficulty walking, coughing, and vomiting. The disease is very rare in North America but life-threatening. Most dogs recover quickly from tick paralysis, up to 95%, if the infected tick is removed quickly. Treatment for tick paralysis, other than removal of ticks, is limited to supportive care.
The treatment for ticks and tick infestations is fairly straightforward. Ticks just need to be safely removed, tick prevention applied, and any skin irritation from the tick bites treated. However, if tick-borne illnesses, secondary infections, or anemia from heavy infestation is present, treatment varies depending on the disease and symptoms.
A visit to a veterinarian is not usually necessary after finding and removing a small number of ticks from your dog. Consult a veterinarian if your dog is experiencing a heavy infestation or severe skin irritation from tick bites. Symptoms of tick-related illnesses do not appear for days or weeks after a bite from an infected tick, and most tick bites do not result in illness.
The best way to prevent tick infestations and illnesses is by using vet-recommended tick prevention. There are oral, topical, and collar preventatives available for dogs that offer protection against ticks. A variety of products are available, and some are safer and more effective than others. Talk to a veterinarian to learn what the best options are for you. The best preventive option depends on the pet parent’s preference, a dog’s tolerance, lifestyle, and geographic location. Some products that are safe for dogs cannot be used if a cat lives in the household as they can be highly toxic. Some products may not be safe for dogs with certain medical conditions, especially conditions affecting the nervous system, such as epilepsy.
Exposure to ticks can also be reduced by removing tall grass and brush from your yard, avoiding or limiting time on trails or in wooded areas, and keeping wildlife away from your yard, as wild animals are also common hosts of ticks. Dogs living in areas where ticks are endemic may need to be on tick preventative year-round to prevent the spread of disease.
A tick bite usually results in itchiness and skin irritation that can take a couple of weeks to heal. However, dogs can contract tick-borne diseases that can be fatal. Open wounds from bites and scratching can result in secondary infections. Small dogs or young puppies who have heavy infestations can develop anemia from blood loss that can be life-threatening. If you have any questions or concerns about ticks and your dog, you can make a virtual vet appointment with a veterinarian who can address your concerns from home.
If a tick is not removed from a dog, the tick eventually eats its fill over several days and drops off, leaving only a scabby, inflamed sore that takes a couple of weeks to heal. Less commonly, the tick may be infected with a disease-causing agent, and transmission of a disease may occur. Rarely, the tick has toxic saliva and this can lead to tick paralysis. It’s important to remove ticks safely and promptly to avoid disease transmission.
Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne illness in the United States.
Treatment of tick-borne disease often has a good outcome in dogs. However, some diseases can cause lifelong problems or life-threatening symptoms. Tick prevention and early removal of ticks on dogs are essential to preventing tick-borne illnesses in dogs.
Use tweezers to grasp the tick close to the skin surface. Firmly pull straight outward until the skin tents and wait for the tick to release. Do not twist or crush the tick, and do not use alternative methods of tick removal, such as petroleum jelly, baby oil, or a lit match. These methods do not work and can cause more damage.
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