As a pet owner, you know that there’s a good chance you’ll have to deal with ticks sooner or later, and right now we’re right smack-dab in the middle of tick season. But what are ticks, exactly? What do they do to dogs and cats, and how dangerous are they? We’ll run down 11 must-know facts about ticks, including how to prevent them and how to remove them if necessary.
WHAT ARE TICKS?
Ticks are parasitic arachnids that attach themselves by the mouth to the skin of dogs, cats and other mammals (including humans) in order to feed on their host's blood.
There are three families of ticks, only one of which, Ixodidae, exists in North America and tends to infect land animals, meaning these are almost always the ticks you or your pets will encounter. Ixodidae ticks are noted for their hard shells, which makes them very difficult to kill with blunt force unless they happen to have recently fed and are engorged with blood.
WHAT DIFFERENT KINDS OF TICKS ARE THERE?
There are more than 80 species of ticks in the U.S., but only a few of them affect pets. The most common ones include the deer tick (of special concern because they transmit Lyme disease), the American dog tick, the brown dog tick, the lone star tick and the winter tick.
WHAT ARE THE LIFE STAGES OF A TICK?
Ticks have four life stages: egg, larva, nymph and adult. Once hatched from their eggs, larval ticks begin feeding on small hosts. As they mature and molt into their new life stages, growing ticks continue to take on large and larger hosts. It takes about a year for a tick to complete its growth from the larval stage to the adult stage. Almost any tick that you find on your pet will be female, because males don’t feed and become engorged with blood as females do. Males live only to mate, and after they mate, they die.
WHY ARE TICKS A PROBLEM?
Ticks can cause allergic reactions in your pet, and if an animal becomes host too many ticks at once, the ticks can drain enough blood to cause anemia in the animal. But more concerning is the ability of ticks to transmit a number of bacterial and viral diseases that can lead to significant health problems.
WHAT DISEASES DO TICKS TRANSMIT?
The most common tick-borne disease in the U.S. is Lyme disease, carried by deer ticks. Other some other tick-borne diseases that can affect pets include anaplasmosis, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, cytauxzoonosis (in cats), tularemia (mostly in cats, but sometimes in dogs), haemobartonellosis and tick paralysis.
HOW DOES A PET GET TICKS?
Contrary to popular belief, ticks do not drop down on their hosts from trees, nor do they fly. Ticks almost always crawl onto their hosts from the ground, or from bushes and tall grass where they may sit. Usually all it takes for a tick to attach itself to a host is for that animal or person to walk in a tick-infested area and brush by a tick, giving it the opportunity to attach itself. Ticks are usually found outside, but they can exist indoors, too.
WHEN ARE TICKS ACTIVE?
Technically, ticks are active year-round, but they’re more active and more abundant in warm weather — “tick season” is considered to be from April to September. Unfortunately, that also happens to be the same time when most people and their pets are more active and spend more time outside, so unless it’s Christmas and your and your dog are curled up inside by the fireplace, be extra careful about ticks.
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS THAT A PET HAS TICKS?
Most ticks can be seen and felt on your dog or cat’s fur when you pet them or run your fingers through their fur. The longer a tick has been feeding and the more filled with blood it is (engorged), the easier it will be to see and feel. On the other hand, deer ticks, the ticks that carry Lyme disease, are very small, and cannot be so easily detected by touch or with the naked eye. Your pet may also react physically to ticks, especially if he or she is allergic to them. Itching is the most common sign, but other symptoms can include fever, anorexia and lethargy.
DO TICKS AFFECT CATS AND DOGS DIFFERENTLY?
In some ways, yes. Simply because of our lifestyles, dogs tend to be more prone to ticks than cats are, as so many cat owners keep their pets indoors, which cuts down on the likelihood of tick infestation almost entirely. In fact, many people believe that cats are immune to ticks, but that isn’t true. Outdoor cats are as susceptible as any dog, and in homes with both dogs and cats, a dog may transmit ticks to an indoor cat. The other main difference is that some tick-borne diseases affect only cats, while some affect only dogs.
HOW DO I PREVENT TICKS?
You can fight the war against ticks on multiple fronts. First of all, it’s a smart idea to give tick-prevention medication to your pet. This usually comes in the form of a topical liquid that’s very easily applied to your pet’s shoulders or neck. Meanwhile, keep your own home from becoming a tick-laden zone by mowing your lawn regularly, trimming back bushes and hedges, and raking up leaves and other debris. If you’re a cat owner, keep your cat indoors. You should also physically check your pet for ticks on a regular basis, especially if you and your dog like to hike in wooded areas or tall grass. It’s important that you check for ticks as soon as possible after exposure, because ticks don’t infect a host with disease until they’ve been attached for a few hours, so the sooner you remove a tick, the safer your pet will be.
Next: Summer Pet Emergencies and Risks
HOW DO I REMOVE TICKS?
When you check your pet for ticks, be thorough. Using your fingers like a comb, inspect every inch of your dog or cat’s body, because ticks can hide anywhere. If you find a tick or ticks on your pet, resist the urge to pluck it off immediately with your bare fingers. You want to wear gloves to prevent transmitting disease to yourself. Using a pair of tweezers, grasp the tick as close to your pet’s skin as possible, taking care not to pinch your pet. Pull straight outward — don’t twist — to remove the entire tick. Remember that the tick’s head is buried in the skin. Your goal is to remove the parasite without tearing the body away from the head and leaving it in the skin. Don’t try to squish the tick; its hard shell will make that difficult. Drown it in rubbing alcohol to kill it.