Ticks - What you need to know

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Ticks - What you need to know - Tick on someone's finger with a dog in the grass in the background

Ticks, a nuisance for all mammals, are black, eight-legged arachnids ranging in size from poppy-seed to lady bug-sized, that sit on the tips of long grass or brush, waiting for their hosts to run past. They are not species-specific, so most animals are at risk of tick bites, including birds, deer, cats, dogs, horses, and cows. Throughout most of the middle latitudes, ticks are dormant during the winter when the weather is below freezing, then more active in the early spring and late fall. However, ticks can stay lively all year long in some areas. With that in mind, knowing everything about ticks as a pet owner is crucial, especially with all the false information and harmful products on the market.

Lifecycle of a tick

The majority of ticks go through four stages of life:

  1. Egg
  2. Six-legged larva
  3. Eight-legged nymph
  4. Adult

Once a tick hatches, it must find a host and take one blood meal at every stage to survive. Depending on the species of tick, they may require one, two, or three different hosts to complete the cycle. Hosts aren’t always easy for ticks to find, so it may take up to three years to complete the entire cycle. Many ticks die because they do not find a host in time.

How to safely remove a tick

Here are the steps to remove a tick safely from a pet:

  1. Make sure to have disinfected tweezers and gloves.
  2. Using the tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible then gently lift up and away until the skin tents. Wait for a couple of seconds and most of the time the tick will let go.
  3. If not, continue to use steady pressure, pulling straight upward until it comes free. Do not squeeze or yank. You don’t want the tick to regurgitate into the skin as that increases the risk of transmitting a tick-borne disease.
  4. Place the detached tick in rubbing alcohol to kill it.
  5. Dispose of it in a sealed container, tight plastic wrap, or by flushing it down the toilet.
  6. Wash the bite mark with mild soap and water, and wash your hands.

Once this is complete, you have correctly removed a tick from your pet. Any folk tales you may have heard about using petroleum jelly, baby oil, or a lit match to remove ticks are false. DO NOT attempt to use these methods. They are dangerous for pets and may make it harder to remove the tick. It is best to avoid breaking the tick, squeezing its abdomen, or damaging the skin to reduce your pet’s risk of infection.

Ticks - Fact or myth?

What happens if I leave the “head-in” when I pull a tick from my pet?

The idea that you need to avoid leaving the head in the skin when removing a tick is a common misconception. Ticks do not insert their heads into their hosts during feeding. The origin of this myth is related to the mark left behind from their bite. It is often nasty, scabby, and inflamed, with a tiny dark spot in the center. Nonetheless, it is very unlikely you’ve left the head within the skin because it was never inserted in the first place. If the tick has been attached long enough, this type of sore with the dark spot in the middle develops even when you properly remove the tick.

What season is the worst for ticks?

Summer is not the only active time for all ticks. For example, black-legged (deer) ticks are more common in the fall. Many ticks are most active during the very earliest part of the spring as well as the end of autumn. Ticks can also be active during the winter any time the temperature is above 4°C/40°F. That means these pests may potentially be a concern for you and your animals all year long.

Spring: “Questing” is what ticks do when they begin looking for a host to feed off. They climb out onto the ends of branches of shrubs and wave their front legs in the air, ready to catch a ride on any animal that walks by.  Adult black-legged and American dog ticks begin searching when the temperature rises above 4°C/40°F in many climates, which means the start of spring. In addition, American dog ticks lengthen their hunting time as the daylight hours increase.

Summer: American dog ticks are active during the summer months. Black-legged ticks aren't as lively this season because they prefer colder temperatures. Even though ticks are usually more active earlier and later in the year, keep an eye out for ticks all summer long.

Fall: As the days get shorter in the autumn, black-legged tick activity picks up while American dog ticks start to retreat. Many pet owners think ticks are not as much of a concern this season, but this is not the case. So keep protecting your animals from ticks throughout the fall and into the winter.

Winter: Despite widespread belief to the contrary, ticks can survive the winter months. If temperatures rise even slightly above freezing, black-legged ticks can become active again and quest for a host. So there is really no time of year when ticks are never a concern for your animals, especially in forested areas.

What region/area are ticks most active?

Ticks are active all across the U.S. In fact, they exist across the globe. Many regions' winters are becoming less harsh due to climate change expanding the tick season. Here is a list of the more common tick species and where they live:

  • American dog tick: Primarily east of the Rocky Mountains, but also found in limited areas on the Pacific Coast.
  • Blacklegged tick: The eastern blacklegged tick is distributed widely across the Eastern United States, while the western blacklegged tick is found along the Pacific Coast.
  • Brown dog tick: This species is found all across the globe.
  • Gulf Coast tick: The Gulf Coast tick lives in coastal areas of the U.S. along the lower Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Lone star tick: This species lives across the southeastern and eastern United States.
  • Rocky Mountain wood tick: The Rocky Mountain wood tick exists in the Rocky Mountain states and southwestern Canada from elevations of 4,000 to 10,500 feet.

Does tick medicine keep my pet from being bit by a tick?

Regular use of a veterinarian-approved tick control product is important for every pet who is exposed to ticks.  Most of these products, however, do not repel ticks or stop them from biting. They’re very effective at killing ticks, but the tick usually has to bite the pet before it picks up the pesticide that kills it. The goal of proper use of a tick preventive is to kill ticks before they’re attached long enough to transmit a disease or cause other illnesses. Even when you regularly use a veterinarian-recommended tick control product, it’s still important to check your dog for ticks daily and remove them safely, especially if you live somewhere where ticks are abundant.

Can I get a tick-borne disease from my pet?

Many pet owners worry their pets can transfer tick-borne diseases to them, but this is not the case. Tick-borne diseases are spread by ticks, not directly from an infected host to another mammal or bird. As such, humans get tick-borne diseases from ticks, not their pets. Species of ticks that require more than one host throughout their lives don’t move immediately from one host to the next. It takes 3 to 12 months before a tick is ready to find a new host, so the odds that an infected tick will crawl off your dog and infect you are very remote.

Ticks are much less of a concern than many people believe. In most scenarios, ticks feed for around three days, become full, and detach without causing or transmitting any type of illness whatsoever. Outside of occasionally becoming infected, the bite of a tick is not harmful itself, it just takes a couple of weeks to heal. Ticks are a greater concern primarily when very small animals are infested with high numbers of ticks, or in uncommon instances where they cause paralysis or transmit a disease. Equip yourself with the knowledge you need to understand the risks ticks pose to your furry friends. Book an online appointment with a registered vet today to ensure you understand your pet's risk and all the ways you can prevent tick-bites going forward!