Written by: Erin Harty, Associate Editor - VetCentric.com
You’re minding your own business, absent-mindedly scratching Rover behind the ears as you read the morning paper, when something grabs your attention. Did you just feel a bump?
The possibility throws you into full tick detection mode’you paw through Rover’s ruff in search of the offending protrusion. Blech. There it is’firmly attached and grossly swollen, it’s sucking Rover’s lifeblood right from his body.
Your efforts should be twofold’first, you’ll want to minimize your pet’s exposure, and second, you should check the animal frequently to find and remove any ticks that have made it past your first line of defense.
You pause, Rover’s fur carefully parted to expose the ill-fated parasite, your fingers poised. Now, wait, you can never remember... how are you supposed to get rid of these things again?
An occasional tick or two is the price your pet pays for the opportunity to frolic in the woods, sniff through the underbrush, and roll in the grass. Despite an owner’s best intentions, the determined little arachnids will, inevitably, find a way to get onto your pet.
But careful surveillance on your part can prevent these ticks from ever becoming a problem. Your efforts should be twofold’first, you’ll want to minimize your pet’s exposure, and second, you should check the animal frequently to find and remove any ticks that have made it past your first line of defense.
Ticks aren’t insects’they’re arachnids, like spiders. There are several hundred different species of ticks in the United States, and the problematic species vary from region to region, but the one pet owners will most commonly encounter on dogs and cats is the brown dog tick.
A tick is a parasite’its entire mission in life is to find an unwitting host. Since its very survival is dependent upon this ability, a tick is particularly adept at it. Ticks don’t jump or fly, but rather position themselves on grass, shrubbery, or underbrush so that they can snag a ride on a passing victim.
You’re most likely to encounter ticks in areas with tall grass or woods, said Ginny Stercula, receptionist at the Beavercreek Animal Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. Clients who go camping with their pets or use bike paths through natural areas also report problems frequently, she added.
But you shouldn’t be complacent if your pet’s strictly an urban-dweller, said Paul Grunenwald, DVM, of the Neartown Animal Clinic in Houston, Texas. Even clients who live in the heart of Houston can experience problems with ticks, he said, so it’s best to keep a constant watchful eye on any animal.
If your dog or cat does frequent tick-prone areas, a little extra vigilance after an outdoor romp is never a bad idea. "Give [the animal] a good once-over," said Dr. Grunenwald. He most often finds ticks in and around the pet’s ears, on the belly, or on the shoulders, but stressed that the parasites can attach anywhere.
If you’re checking the animal immediately after an outdoor foray, any ticks you find will likely be scoping out good real estate and won’t yet have dug in and attached. If you find a loose tick, removal is easy’just pluck it off the pet and kill it. (Dropping it into alcohol or flushing it down the toilet are good methods of executing the notoriously hard-to-kill buggers, Ms. Stercula said.)
But if you find a tick that’s already attached to a pet’s skin, the procedure is a little more involved.
Ticks feed by burying their heads in an animal’s skin, leaving their bodies exposed. As the tick feeds, the body becomes engorged and swollen, making it easier to spot. Although the bulbous protrusion is certainly disgusting, your real worry is the tick’s head, which is embedded in the skin.
If you pluck the tick off carelessly, you may end up merely decapitating it, leaving its head behind and leaving your pet vulnerable to an infection or abscess, said Dr. Grunenwald said.
He recommends using a pair of tweezers for removal. "Grab hold of the tick where the head is, right near the base, and pull it out in one quick motion," he explained.
Don’t jerk or twist as you pull, Ms. Stercula said, and after you’ve removed the tick, take a close look at it to see if the head is still attached. If not, it’s still in your pet, and a call to the veterinarian is in order.
In addition to being incredibly disgusting, ticks also present distinct dangers to both pets and people’Lyme disease, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, and paralysis are just some of the goodies these small pests can bestow upon their hosts.
If you pluck the tick off carelessly, you may end up merely decapitating it, leaving its head behind and leaving your pet vulnerable to an infection or abscess.
After removing a tick, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the affected spot for a few days. Although uncommon, Lyme disease is transmitted through tick bites, sometimes resulting in a distinctive bulls-eye pattern around a tick bite, Dr. Grunenwald said. (This pattern may not be visible if the coat is unusually dense.)
Ticks aren’t exclusively an animal problem, so finding one on a pet should make an owner more vigilant about the human members of the household as well, Dr. Grunenwald added. "Owners can also pick up ticks, so they should check themselves over really well," he said. Illnesses like Lyme disease can also affect humans.
There are preventative measures owners can take as well. Use of Frontline or a similar tick-killing application can provide some protection, as can collars specifically intended for ticks, Dr. Grunenwald said. If you know a pet is going to be venturing into a tick-infested area, you can also apply a repellent spray for some temporary protection, he added.
A vaccine is also available for Lyme disease, which many veterinarians will administer upon request.