What's a tick?
While many pet owners think they're closely related to fleas, the tick is in fact a very different mini-beast altogether. While the flea is a six-legged jumping insect, the tick is of the arachnid family and therefore more closely related to—yes, you guessed it—spiders. Unlike their insect cousins, ticks can survive at near-freezing temperatures, unaffected by the application of even the toughest household repellents, and can transfer nasty infections such as Lyme disease and spotted fever to your beloved canine companion. Multiple ticks may deprive your dog of enough blood to cause the deficiency called anemia, and certain female ticks produce a toxin which can even cause a rare paralysis in your pet. Plus, with the parasitic pests happy to live on several hosts in their lifetime of up to three years, carrying a tick into the home could spell trouble for more residents than just the family pet.
- Eight-legged arachnid
- 1/8th to 1/4th of an inch in length
- Up to three years, dependent on finding a suitable host to complete life cycle
- Can survive extreme cold
- Can transfer Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and more
- Six-legged insect
- 1/16th to 1/8th of an inch in length
- Around 100 day lifespan
- Thrives in warm temperatures
- Can transfer bartonellosis or tapeworm, relatively mild illnesses
Only about as large as the head of a pin and usually black or brown in color, ticks can be a challenge to see. You may think that checking your dog regularly with brushes of the hand is giving the all-clear, but the hair-covered body of a dog is not nearly as appetizing to ticks as the more secluded, hairless regions. Namely, around the ears, joints of the legs, and between the toes are where you're most likely to find them hiding. Regularly running your hands over your dog’s back and stomach is a good idea, but remember to check the less exposed parts too.
Another common indication of ticks is irritation. If your dog is shaking its head or legs in an agitated way, this could signal discomfort due to the presence of a tick. Similarly, signs of abnormal weakness and fatigue, loss of appetite, or shivering could indicate a fever caused by an unwelcome guest. Be sure to check your dog regularly and thoroughly for any signs of bites or scabs.
How do ticks attach?
If your dog spends a lot of time outside in warm weather, particularly in green environments such as parks and fields (or even your own garden), they're at higher risk of acquiring a tick. Ticks can be picked up from vegetation such as bushes or grass that a curious dog may decide to go sniffing around in, or from other dogs he meets. Upon landing on a dog, the tick inserts its mouth parts into the unfortunate animal’s skin, holding itself securely in place. A sticky "glue" produced by glands on the tick’s body also helps it to stay attached. All in all, it’s a pretty unpleasant business.
Things to look out for
Ticks can cause a range of symptoms in your dog, from mild skin irritation to full-blown fever. Here are some of the clearest signs that your dog may be carrying parasitic passengers:
- Skin irritation, itching. Dog might shake body parts or scratch against objects
- Inflammation and redness around the bitten area
- Mild to high fever
- Loss of appetite
- Lethargy and fatigue
- Depression and reduced personality
Any of these symptoms may occur only for a few hours, or continue for days or weeks. If your dog is showing these signs, it’s worth checking for ticks.
Beyond the initial symptoms of flea discomfort, more serious health hazards may make themselves apparent. Once a tick has been feeding for more than around 10 or 12 hours, dangerous blood borne diseases can be passed on to your dog. These include Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and encephalitis, as well as so-called "tick paralysis," a rare disablement brought on by a toxin found in certain female ticks. Prolonged feeding may also lead to anemia from blood loss in your pet.
How serious is it? If dealt with rapidly, a tick will not pose a serious threat to your pooch. However, if left unnoticed or untreated for any significant time, these tiny terrors could damage your pet’s long-term health or—worst of all—even cause issues which endanger their life. It is therefore crucial to catch ticks early on, before they infect.
Myths and Misconceptions
Ticks, like many parasites, carry with them a lot of misconceptions and old wives’ tales. While they make good stories for the kids, these three "facts" about ticks are actually fiction.
One of the most common misconceptions about ticks is that they are solely summer creatures, who don’t survive beyond the fall. This is not the case. Unlike fleas, ticks can survive and thrive in extreme temperatures, and will last through even the harshest winter. Your dog can catch ticks all year round, so they should be checked all year round too.
A lot of people believe that ticks fall from trees. This is likely to be down to the fact that—in the case of humans—they are often found on the head, so must have come from above. In fact, ticks are talented climbers, and will seek out the most discreet and hidden parts of the body to feed on. In humans, this happens to be the hair. Your dog is most likely to catch a tick from grass and vegetation, but certainly not from an overhead tree.
Give it a drink
If you ever had a tick as a child, your parent or grandparent may well have soaked the critter in alcohol before removing it, under the notion that this makes the tick lame and easier to remove. In fact, this is not true. You should place the tick into alcohol after removal, but all you need to relieve your dog of a tick is a clean pair of tweezers and a steady hand.
How to remove a tick from a dog
Removing ticks is straightforward and painless for both dog and owner if you know what you're doing. The first thing to do when removing a tick from your dog is to ensure that you have the appropriate tools. You will need:
- Clean, ideally sterilized tweezers (you can sterilize by submerging the tweezers in boiling water for a few minutes and allowing to cool before use)
- Rubber gloves to avoid infection
- Veterinary disinfectant
- Alcohol (this should be rubbing alcohol, not something from the drinks cabinet)
- Small sealable plastic bag, such as a sandwich bag
To remove the tick...
- Put on the rubber gloves to protect your hands.
- Take the clean tweezers and gently grasp the head of the tick where it attaches to the skin. Press down slightly to grip as close to the skin as possible.
- Important: Pull slowly and steadily on the tick until it begins to slide out. If you tug or yank suddenly, you risk breaking off part of the parasite in your dog’s skin, which is bad news.
- Immediately dab some disinfectant on the affected area to prevent infection, being especially careful if near your pet’s eyes.
- Place the tick in your alcohol to kill it.
- At this point, it is a good idea to save the tick in the plastic bag. Strange though this may sound, if your dog does later contract symptoms of disease or infection, it could be important to identify the particular breed of tick that was found.
Prevention techniques—put it right before they bite
The best way to tackle ticks is to act before they find their way onto your dog. Here are five easy steps you can start taking today to minimize your dog’s risk of picking up a pest or becoming harmed if they do so.
1. Check daily
The easiest and most certain way to ensure your dog doesn’t suffer the long-term damage of a tick is to check your pet every day. Run your hand across all areas of the skin, remembering to check the particularly vulnerable hidden areas of the leg joints, ears, and between the toes.
2. Avoid tick-infested areas
Knowing your local tick spots and how to keep your pet away from them is a good first step in avoiding infection. Speak to other dog owners about any particularly bad areas and make a note of where you think your own dog may have picked up the critters.
3. Do some gardening
Most dogs spend at least a bit of time each day in the garden, making this one of the most common places for ticks to make contact. While it is possible to plan entire landscaping projects around tick-prevention, simpler measures such as clearing tall grasses and invasive weeds, mowing the lawn frequently, and surrounding the space with a border of non-vegetative material like wood-chips or paving, can be part of an anti-tick approach to gardening. Discouraging wild animals such as squirrels and neighbors’ cats from visiting can also stem the migration of ticks onto your property.
4. Ask for a professional exam
When visiting your vet for a check-up or other treatment, ask them to conduct an examination. This quick check by a professional who knows what they're looking for could highlight signs or symptoms which you might not notice yourself.
5. Use a repellent
Tick repellents for pets vary widely, and the product suited to your needs will depend on your particular animal, home environment and other factors. Ask your vet to recommend whether a repellent would be suitable for your dog.
Preventing ticks for your dog can be a challenge, but treating them is easy if you act quickly and know what to do. Spotting a tick early and acting to remove it could save your dog—as well as your wallet—a lot of pain and discomfort. Look out for the key symptoms of irritation, fever, and lethargy and conduct regular thorough checks on your animal while petting in the home.
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