As North American tick activity continues to grow with climate change, outdoor animals and livestock are more readily exposed to these pests. Horse owners need to know how to detect and remove ticks from their horses, as well as understand the risks of tick-borne illness. Read on to learn:
Due to their large size and active outdoor lifestyle, horses are especially susceptible to getting ticks. Ticks pose health risks and some tick-borne diseases can be fatal.
Ticks are small parasitic arachnids that ingest blood from hosts, including wildlife, horses, other pets, and humans. Tick populations are most abundant and active during early spring and late fall in temperate climates. Ticks are most common in environments with tall grass, shrubs, or wooded areas. Climate change is causing tick season to last longer as well as increasing the active range of ticks across the continent, affecting more horses across North America. There are several different species of ticks in North America, including deer ticks, also known as black-legged ticks, and American dog ticks. Spinous ticks are the most commonly overlooked tick species due to their small size and tendency to attach inside the ear.
When ticks are looking for their next host, they wait on long grass or shrubs with legs outstretched. Unlike fleas, ticks do not jump. Once they have grabbed onto a host, they crawl to their preferred feeding location. In particular, ticks tend to feed on areas where the skin is thinner and it’s easier for them to attach. Ticks are more abundant in grassy, shrubby, or wooded areas frequented by wildlife that serve as hosts for ticks. A horse’s outdoor lifestyle creates many opportunities for exposure to ticks, especially during peak season.
Horses ridden or kept in areas where ticks are present are most likely to be affected. Contact your local extension office or equine vet to learn more about what kinds of ticks are expected in your region. If ticks are common in your area, check your horse for ticks every day, especially during peak season. Systematically scratch at the skin in the most common attachment sites including the ears, chest, underbelly, in the mane or tail, and inside the flank. While these are the most common places to find ticks, they can attach anywhere on the body. A thorough examination after riding is the best way to find ticks on a horse.
Due to a tick’s small size, it is often easier to feel for ticks rather than visually search for them. Tick bites on horses often result in a skin reaction at the bite site that appears as a small, firm nodule. A horse may also give behavioral cues when they have ticks by rubbing against trees or fences in an attempt to remove them. Excessive scratching can result in hair loss, skin irritation, and open wounds that can become infected.
When removing a tick, wear gloves and use tweezers to grasp the tick close to the skin surface. Pull straight outward until the skin tents, without twisting or crushing the tick. Then wait for the tick to let go. If it doesn’t, gently pull straight out a little more. Avoid using bare hands to handle ticks. Tick-borne diseases can be transmitted if a tick regurgitates or is crushed onto an open wound in your skin during removal. Note that other methods of removal, such as petroleum jelly, baby oil, and lit matches do not work and can cause more damage to you and your horse.
Once the tick releases, drop it into rubbing alcohol, wrap it tightly with tape, or flush it down a toilet to dispose of it. If there is a reason to submit a tick for identification, drop it into a tightly sealed jar with rubbing alcohol. Talk to your local extension office to learn about local tick identification procedures.
Fortunately, most tick bites do not result in transmission of a disease. “Even when a tick is carrying a disease, it doesn’t transmit it immediately upon biting a horse, so frequent inspection and timely removal is essential to prevent tick-borne diseases,” explains Dr. Jo Myers, a Vetster veterinarian.
Ticks can spread a number of diseases to horses. The best way to prevent tick-borne illness in horses is with tick prevention and prompt removal when ticks are found on your horse’s skin.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection spread by tick bites. It is rare in horses. Equine Lyme disease may lead to symptoms affecting the eyes, skin, and brain. Other symptoms include stiffness, joint swelling, lameness, difficulty breathing, and loss of muscle mass. Behavioral changes have also been reported, but the link between the disease and changes in behavior has not been scientifically confirmed. Treatment includes antibiotics for the bacterial infection and supportive care for other symptoms.
Anaplasmosis is a tick-borne bacterial infection that alters the ability of white blood cells to fight infection. Clinical signs of anaplasmosis in horses include fever, jaundice, lethargy, and uncoordinated movement. The disease can also lead to other diseases and infections due to a reduced immune response associated with anaplasmosis. Treatment includes antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and supportive care for other symptoms and resulting infections.
Piroplasmosis is a result of a parasitic infection spread by ticks. The disease is extremely rare in North America and most horses show few to no symptoms. When symptoms do develop in horses, they can include pale gums, lethargy, and exercise intolerance. Horses with piroplasmosis need to be quarantined and treated with chemotherapeutic medication that can have devastating side effects.
Tick paralysis is the only tick-borne illness that is not an infectious disease. It is the result of a paralytic toxin present in tick saliva. Horses are generally resistant to tick toxins, so tick paralysis in horses is rare. When horses are affected, symptoms begin in the hind legs and work their way forward. Symptoms include weakness, paralysis, difficulty walking, difficulty breathing, and difficulty swallowing. Treatment for equine tick paralysis includes the removal of ticks and supportive care.
Even when a tick is properly removed or naturally falls off when it’s done eating, it leaves a small, scabby sore that takes a couple of weeks to heal. Sometimes a tick bite gets infected. This is more likely when a horse scratches excessively in an effort to remove the tick. Infected tick bites may develop redness and swelling, and treatment with antibiotics may be necessary.
isn’t a tick-borne illness, but it can occur in rare cases of large infestations in small horses or foals. Ticks take blood meals from their hosts. When a horse has a large number of ticks, they can lose enough blood to become anemic. Symptoms of anemia in horses include loss of energy, weakness, lack of appetite, pale gums, and an increased heart rate. Treatment for tick anemia includes the removal of all ticks, supportive care, and potential blood transfusion in severe cases.
A visit to the veterinarian is not necessary after finding and removing a few ticks from a healthy horse. Consult an equine veterinarian whenever symptoms of disease appear or in the case of heavy tick infestations. Treatment for ticks includes the removal of all ticks and supportive care for any other symptoms or secondary infections, and antibiotics may be necessary for tick-borne infections.
If you find a tick on your horse, safely remove it and thoroughly check your horse for any additional ticks. A thorough groom can help remove ticks from the skin and mane. Consider treating your pasture and barn for ticks and remove long grass and brush where ticks can hide. Using vet-recommended tick prevention on your horse can also prevent future tick bites and infestations. Consult a veterinarian if symptoms appear or there are signs of skin wounds or irritation. Symptoms of tick-borne illness can take weeks to appear after tick attachment occurs.
Horse owners can prevent ticks on their horses in several ways. Pasture maintenance by mowing long grass and removing brush reduces tick exposure by removing places ticks like to hide. Discourage wildlife from entering pastures as they can carry ticks with them. Use tick-specific prevention on the areas of the body where ticks like to congregate. Ingredients that prevent ticks include:
Birds such as guinea fowl and chickens enjoy eating ticks and can further prevent tick exposure to horses. There are no vaccines for tick-borne illnesses or to prevent tick attachment in horses. If you have questions about tick prevention, disease, and detection you can chat with an online vet at Vetster.
During the holidays we spend time with family, friends, and our pets. As an attentive pet parent, enjoying the holidays with your family pets might include managing your pet’s health and medications, caring for your senior pets, and being prepared for all the potential pet emergencies that can happen during the holiday festivities...
Time for a check-up?
Start a video chat with a licensed veterinarian right now on Vetster!