By Deb Haines
Where do ticks live and how can a pet get infested with ticks?
The vast majority of ticks species live outdoors, especially in places used by livestock (cattle, sheep, goats) and/or wildlife for grazing and resting, whereby small mammals (e.g. rodents, rabbits, hedgehogs, etc.) and birds are often important hosts as well, especially of immature tick stages (i.e. larvae and nymphs) that can also infest pets and humans. Ticks can also be abundant in peri-urban parks, recreational and residential areas, especially if they are also visited by wildlife. Ticks are usually not present in cropland, but can be found on its border.
There is one particular tick species that can complete development indoors, the brown dog tick ( Rhipicephalus sanguineus), which occurs worldwide and is often a pest in kennels, dog pounds, etc.
Therefore it is unlikely that a dog (or its owner) gets ticks indoors. However, if a pet gets ticks, brings them home and engorged adult females drop to the ground somewhere in or around the building, such females will lay eggs by the thousands. And microscopic larvae that hatch out of the eggs can indeed infest pets and/or humans. Such larvae are very unlikely to complete their development to adult ticks (excepting the previously mentioned brown dog tick) and will probably remain unnoticed, but larvae of certain species are also capable of transmitting tick-borne diseases.
After getting onto a host, hard ticks (either larvae, nymphs or adults) will crawl around in its hair coat for 1 to 2 hours searching a good place to bite (which can be species-specific, e.g. the ears). Once they feel comfortable they will attach and start their blood meal, which can last for days. After the blood meal they drop to the ground for molting or egg laying. It is extremely unlikely that an undisturbed tick that has found a host abandons it without attaching and feeding. After dropping they do not move away. Larvae and nymphs molt to the next stage in a few days and start again questing. Engorged females deposit their eggs during several days and die. Larvae that hatch out of the eggs immediately start questing without moving away.
What harm can cause ticks to dogs and cats?
Tick bites are usually not painful for the pets. The reason is that ticks introduce natural painkillers with their saliva to increase the chance for remaining unnoticed by the host during the daylong blood meal. However, if a pet gets dozens of ticks, it may well be significantly annoyed by the ticks themselves, regardless of whether it becomes infected with a tick-borne disease or not.
Blood loss due to a few ticks is irrelevant for a pet’s health. Most dogs and cats will usually catch only a few ticks. But if a pet gets bitten by hundreds of ticks, blood loss can certainly lead to anemia.
In tropical and sub-tropical regions, the small injuries caused by tick bites can attract parasitic flies that lay their eggs on this wounds (e.g. screwworm flies) and develop into cutaneous myiases. Fly larvae that hatch out of the eggs feed on the pet’s tissues and can cause severe injuries if left untreated.
Poisoning is another possible harm caused by tick bites. Ticks do no inject a strong toxin as snakes, spiders or scorpions. But the tick’s saliva contains a complex mix of several substances that strongly affect the host’s immune system. For several tick species this can lead to a general toxemia (= poisoning) of the host. Such toxemia can lead to paralysis of the host that can be fatal. This is the case for Ixodes rubicundus in Southern Africa that can caused tick paralysis on sheep; Ixodes holocyclus in Australia that can cause tick paralysis of humans, dogs and cattle; and Dermacentor andersoni that can cause tick paralysis of cattle in North America. Hyalomma truncatum causes the sweating sickness in Northern Africa, which is characterized by massive hair loss (alopecia).
The major threat for pets coming from ticks is transmission of tick-borne diseases. Almost all tick species transmit one or more tick-borne diseases, e.g. anaplasmosis, babesiosis, borreliosis (=Lyme disease), ehrlichiosis, hepatozoonosis, meningoencephalitis, etc. But not all species transmit all the diseases. Which tick species transmit which disease is regionally different. Most veterinary doctors know which tick-borne diseases a particular tick species transmits in a specific region. These diseases affect mainly dogs, but cats in rural areas can also be affected.
Humans may be affected by some of these tick-borne diseases as well, but only if they are also bitten by ticks, not because the disease that affects the pet is contagious for humans (as e.g. influenza). As previously mentioned, it is also extremely unlikely that a tick that has bitten a pet will afterwards bite its owner and transmit the same disease.
For the pet owner it is important to be aware and on the alert. If ticks are found on the pet they must be removed, preserved (e.g. in alcohol) and brought to a veterinary doctor for determining the species. Knowing the tick species indicates which diseases may have been transmitted. Afterwards the pet has to be carefully observed for whatever abnormal behavior: fever, lack of appetite, abnormal movements, etc.
It is good to know, that when inspecting a pet for ticks, what most pet owners will find are more or less engorged adult ticks, which can be between 0.5 and 2 cm long, something between a rice grain and a large bean. Unfed adults reach 0.2 to 1 cm, depending on the species. Engorged larvae are usually 1 to 2 mm, too small to be detected by the naked eye. Engorged nymphs reach 2 to 5 mm, small enough to remain unnoticed by most pet owners. Unfortunately larvae and nymphs are also capable of transmitting diseases. However, larvae and nymphs of many species prefer smaller hosts (rodents, birds, rabbits, etc.) and are less likely to infest dogs or cats.
Steps for Removing Ticks From Dogs
Use caution when trying to remove ticks that are attached near your dog’s eyes, around their mouth, and inside their ears. If the tick is in an area that seems uncomfortable for your dog, don’t be afraid to call your veterinarian and ask for assistance.
Use the treats as distractions and rewards for your dog during the tick removal process. Here’s how to get ticks off dogs using tweezers or a tick removal tool.
Using Tweezers to Remove Ticks
If you are using tweezers to remove a tick, follow these steps:
- Try to grab the base of the tick as close to your dog’s skin as possible. Try not to pinch your dog! Also make sure you are not squeezing the tick too tightly, as it may crush the tick and make it more difficult to remove.
- Slowly begin to pull the tick out from your dog’s skin in a steady motion. Do not twist or jerk your hand while pulling the tick out. The goal is to pull the head of the tick out of your dog’s skin while it is still attached to its body.
- Once the tick has been removed, examine it to make sure all body parts have been removed from your dog’s skin.
What to Do If the Head of the Tick Gets Stuck in Your Dog’s Skin
If the head of the tick is still embedded in your dog’s skin after the body has been removed, there’s no need to panic.
Do not try to dig the head of the tick out of your dog’s skin. This will cause more irritation and inflammation and will open the skin to infection.
Instead, take your dog to the veterinarian to remove any remaining embedded pieces of the tick.
Preventing Tick Bites
Keep your dog on flea and tick prevention year-round.
There are very effective oral prescription products available, Please talk to your local veterinarian which product would be best for your pet.
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