With the mild winter and warm weather we are currently experiencing, ticks are expected to be a major concern this year. Both animals and people will be at an increased risk for tick-borne diseases. Prevention is the most important facet for protecting pets from these parasites and the diseases they spread. If you are diligent with the year-round use of flea and tick preventatives, and regularly check your pet’s bodies for attached ticks, you can make sure they are safely able to enjoy the beautiful weather.
Ticks are small arachnids (relatives of spiders) that feed on the blood of other animals. Their life cycle consists of 4 stages: egg, larva, nymph and adult. After hatching from an egg, the tick must have a blood meal in order to continue development to the next stage.
They are most commonly found in wooded and grassy areas and are most prevalent in the spring and summer. As ticks do not fly, they require other animals to help them move from host to host. The most prevalent host in our area is the white-tailed deer. There are four species of ticks common in the northeastern United States: American Dog tick, Black-legged Tick (Deer Tick), Lone Star tick, and the Brown dog Tick. Unlike people, you will very rarely see any rash or markings on your pet, following a bite from a tick. Tick borne diseases are more common in dogs than cats as cats will frequently remove ticks via grooming themselves before they have time to transmit disease.
While Lyme Disease is the most publicized and wildly known tick borne disease, it is only one of many infectious diseases transmitted by ticks in our area. Other notable diseases include Ehrlichia, Anaplasma, Rocky-Mountain Spotted Fever, and Babesia. All of these diseases can cause serious illness in both people and animals. Often animals will not show symptoms for weeks or even months following infection from a tick. Signs can also be very subtle. The most common symptoms consist of lethargy, depression, lameness, inappetence, swollen joints, fever, and pale gums. If you should notice any of these signs, have your pet examined immediately by a veterinarian. Your veterinarian will likely take a blood sample and test for a number of diseases.
There is currently an in-house test that can show if your dog was exposed to either Lyme, Ehrlichia or Anaplasma within 10 minutes. If this test is positive, then additional blood work will likely be recommended. Unfortunately, these diseases are very complex and not entirely understood in both veterinary and human medicine.
What can we do to protect our pets from these parasites? The most important component of protection is the use of a monthly Ascaricide product. These products are generally applied to the skin topically and kill fleas and ticks. It is very important to discuss with your veterinarian the safest and most effective preventative for your specific pet. There are many over-the-counter products seen in retail stores and some are more dangerous, less effective and not properly received directly from the manufacturers. Have a detailed discussion with your veterinarian on these products and allow them to show you the proper technique for application.
It is also very important to understand how these pesticides work. Some require the tick to take a blood meal, but will kill the tick before it has the ability to transmit disease. Others claim to have repellant activity. Because ticks don’t jump or fly, no products will prevent a tick from “climbing” onto their hosts, but may prevent the tick from taking a blood meal. This is why it is so important to understand how these products work.
A vaccine for Lyme disease is currently available for dogs. While this vaccine is good, it is far from 100% effective and it does not protect against the other tick-borne diseases. I recommend it for any dog who spends time in grassy or wooded environments. The vaccine must be boostered 2-3 weeks following the first administration, and then it is given annually. We should never depend upon the vaccine alone, and should always use a monthly preventative in conjunction.
You should also get into the habit of examining your pet daily. Use a brush or your fingers and look closely through their haircoat. If you should find a tick, remove it immediately. The simplest method is to take a tweezer and remove the tick as close to the skin as possible. The use of Vaseline or burning them with a match is never recommended.
Ticks will be extremely prevalent this season. However, if you examine your pet closely, use a recommended topical tick preventative, and, when appropriate, administer the Lyme Vaccine, we can actively diminish the risks of our pets contracting one of these horrible diseases. By following this protocol you and your pet can continue to explore and enjoy the outdoors together.