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Ticks. Tiny, eight-legged parasites that crawl around looking for potential hosts, and when they find them, feed on their blood by burrowing their mouthparts into the host’s skin, where they can remain attached for days. Oh, and did we mention that, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, they can also transmit 14 different types of diseases to their hosts? What’s not to love?
Turns out, plenty. Besides their creepy-crawly gross-out factor, ticks can pose real problems for both dogs and humans. Since ticks attach firmly and feed slowly, they can go unnoticed for a long time, giving them plenty of time to transmit disease to their host. These tough little freeloaders can also take in a tremendous amount of blood (some are able to grow up to 4 times their original size while feeding), so if a large number of them infest a small dog, they can actually cause the dog to become weak and anemic from blood loss.
So how can we keep our dogs (and ourselves) tick-free?
As with any battle against parasites, the old adage “Know thine enemy” serves us well. So first, a few facts about ticks:
- Contrary to popular belief, ticks do not fall from trees onto their hosts. Instead, they wait patiently on vegetation (usually in wooded areas or tall grass), until they detect an approaching host by sensing carbon dioxide, warmth, and movement. Then they reach up with their front legs and start waving them around (called “questing”), hoping to snag a ride. If they’re lucky, they’re able to climb onto their host, where they crawl upwards until they find a location to feed.
- Spring and summer are prime seasons for ticks, but in some areas they can survive well into the fall and winter months. Ticks can be active any time the ground temperature is above 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
- It takes 24 to 48 hours for an attached tick to transmit a disease or infection to its host, so the more quickly you remove a tick, the better. Although not all ticks carry disease, many do, and they can have serious consequences if you or your dog become infected.
- Tick saliva is a veritable “magic potion”. It not only has an anesthetic effect (allowing the tick to bite without its host noticing), but it also contains a cement-like material to keep the tick stuck to the skin, plus an anticoagulant to keep blood from clotting so the tick can continue to feed for days.
The 4 Most Common Ticks Likely To Infest Your Dog
Although there are around 15 species of ticks in North America, most of them infest birds and other wildlife. The 4 most common ticks likely to be encountered by your dog are these:
1. American Dog Tick
These are chestnut brown with white spots or streaks on their backs. When filled with blood, the females look elongated and gray in color. They’re found throughout the United States, but are most common in coastal, warm, and humid regions, and most active during the Spring months. These ticks are mostly found outdoors, and rarely infest homes or buildings. They attack both dogs and humans.
2. Lone Star Tick
These are varying shades of brown or tan. Males have scattered white spots on their backs, while females have one single white spot. They’re typically found along the east coast, and in the southern and midwestern states. They prefer wooded areas or thick underbrush, near creeks and rivers where animals like to lay down and rest.
3. Deer Tick (Black-legged Tick)
Deer ticks, also known as Black-legged ticks, have gained notoriety for their likelihood of transmitting Lyme disease, as well as the parasite Babesia, to their hosts. Deer ticks are very small (only about half the size of other ticks), and reddish-brown in color, and are found in wooded areas along the east coast, southern, and upper midwestern states. The Western Black-legged tick is found west of the Rocky Mountains, primarily in California, Washington, and Oregon.
4. Brown Dog Tick
These ticks are found throughout the United States, and feed mostly on dogs (they rarely bite humans). Unlike other ticks, Brown Dog ticks prefer to live indoors, earning them the nickname “kennel ticks.” They’re found mostly in homes or kennels, where they hide in cracks, under appliances, rugs, and furniture, and behind curtains and walls. They usually attach themselves to the face, ears, or between the toes of a dog to feed, and once the females drop off, they crawl into a warm, dark place to lay their eggs – up to 3,000 at one time.
So now that your skin is probably crawling, here’s how you can get these ticks off your dog – and keep them off!
10 Ways To Get Ticks Off Your Dog
There are several methods and products available to keep your dog tick-free. (Keep in mind that some of the products mentioned below contain chemicals formulated to repel or kill ticks, so care should be taken to use them exactly as they’re intended).
Spot-on medications consist of chemicals that are formulated to both ward off and kill ticks and fleas. This liquid comes in single-dose tubes that you apply directly to your dog’s skin between the shoulder blades. The oil in the liquid is designed to slowly spread out over the skin, where it can keep ticks away (and kill any ticks that are already attached) for up to a month.
Examples of spot-on medications for ticks include K9 Advantix®, Frontline® Plus, and Revolution®. These medications are very effective, but great care should be taken as to how they’re used. Dosage is based on your dog’s weight, so always make sure you’re using the product specifically formulated for your dog, and never use a tick product formulated for dogs on your cat! Check with your veterinarian for recommendations on the safest spot-on treatment to use for your dog.
Oral medications to kill ticks and fleas come in tablet form, and are given once a month. The tablets are easy to administer, and you don’t have to be careful about cats or children coming into contact with your dog immediately after treatment like you would with spot-on medications.
These oral medications are also specifically formulated according to your dog’s weight. Products include Bravecto® and NexGard®, both of which require a prescription from your veterinarian. As with spot-on treatments, ask your veterinarian which one he or she recommends as best for your dog.
Tick sprays are simply sprayed directly onto your dog’s coat. They are most effective when used before you spend time outdoors, as they work to repel ticks and keep them from attaching. However, they can also kill any ticks that manage to climb aboard your dog.
Both chemical and natural tick sprays are available. Be very careful not to use them around your dog’s face and eyes, and keep them away from cats or other pets in your household.
These shampoos contain medicated ingredients that kill ticks on contact. They need to be used frequently (about once every 2 weeks during tick season), since they don’t offer the residual protection of other tick products. As with any tick product, ask your veterinarian for recommendations on the safest brands to use.
Dips are very concentrated chemicals designed to be diluted with water and poured or sponged onto your dog after bathing with a regular shampoo. Tick dips kill existing ticks on contact, and since they don’t get rinsed off, they also provide residual protection afterwards.
Dips are very strong, and most have a lingering chemical odor. They can’t be used on dogs younger than 4 months old, or on dogs who are pregnant or nursing. Because dips can be dangerous if used incorrectly, for maximum safety I recommend that if you decide to have your dog dipped for ticks, if at all possible get it done by your veterinary clinic. Since these are strong chemicals, the potential for toxicity is greater than other methods on this list.
House and Lawn Treatments
Household and yard sprays and granules to keep ticks away are available from your veterinarian, local garden center, and some pet stores. Many exterminating services also offer treatments for ticks. Keep in mind that some of these chemical products can be harmful to children and other animals, so they should be kept out of treated areas for the recommended period of time.
Tick collars are usually considered an additional preventive, as most tend to keep ticks away from your dog’s head and neck area, but don’t provide as much full-body protection as spot-ons, oral medications, or sprays. These collars need to be in contact with your dog’s skin in order to be effective, so dogs with heavy coats or lots of undercoat may not benefit as much as dogs with lighter coats. Tick collars should not be used on dogs younger than 3 months of age. As with any product, watch your dog for any signs of skin sensitivity or allergic reaction.
Creating a Tick-Free Zone In Your Yard
You can reduce the likelihood of your dog coming into contact with ticks by making sure that your yard is not tick-friendly. Since ticks thrive in places with long grass, debris, and humidity, make your yard less hospitable to them by keeping your lawn mowed short and bushes trimmed. Also remove any leaf litter or debris that may be keeping the ground underneath it moist, which is where ticks like to breed.
Safety-Checking Your Dog
After spending time outside with your dog in tick season, always check him over carefully for ticks, paying particular attention to armpits, inside the ears, between the toes, and around his neck and face. It can take ticks awhile to find the perfect spot on your dog to attach themselves and feed, so the sooner you find and remove the ticks (while they are still crawling on the fur and not attached), the better.
This method may be old-school, but if done consistently, it’s still effective – especially for dog parents who are hesitant to use chemical treatments. However, if your dog is large, has dark or heavy fur, or you live in an area where ticks are plentiful, it can be quite easy to miss a very small tick. You’ll need to weigh the possibility of overlooking something against any concerns about using a treatment or medication on your dog. As always, don’t hesitate to discuss all concerns with your veterinarian.
If you do find a tick attached to your dog, don’t panic. The important thing to remember is that the old wives’ tales about tick removal (burning them with a match head, suffocating them with nail polish or petroleum jelly, etc.) DON’T WORK and can actually be dangerous to your dog. These techniques can cause the tick to salivate more, increasing the chances of transmitting disease. Instead, you can manually remove the tick yourself by following the steps below.
How To Safely Remove A Tick From Your Dog
Step 1: Assemble your tools. You will need:
- A clean pair of tweezers OR commercial tick remover kit (which consists of a small forked tool and a magnifier)
- Latex gloves
- A small disposable, sealable container filled with alcohol
- Antiseptic (such as hydrogen peroxide, betadine, or chlorhexidine)
- A helper (if possible) to keep your dog still while you’re removing the tick
Step 2: Put on gloves!
Never attempt to handle a tick with your bare hands. The diseases that ticks carry can enter your body through microscopic cuts or breaks in the skin, or through mucous membranes (when you touch your eyes, nose or mouth).
Step 3: Remove the tick.
With a partner holding your dog steady, part the fur around where you see the tick. Take your tweezers (or tick removal tool) and grasp the tick as close to your dog’s skin as possible, where the head of the tick attaches to its neck.
Applying gentle, steady pressure, pull the tick out at the same angle that it went in, parallel to your dog’s skin. Do not pull it straight up, twist it, or yank it out too quickly. This can cause the tick’s head to break off and remain in your dog’s skin. Also, don’t squeeze the tick’s body while you’re pulling it out, as this can cause the tick to regurgitate saliva and gut contents containing infectious organisms directly into your dog’s skin.
Continue applying steady pressure until the tick releases its grip. Be patient – in some cases it can take up to a minute for the tick to let go.
Step 4: Drop the tick into the alcohol-filled jar and seal it.
This serves two purposes: 1) The alcohol will kill the tick (simply flushing it down the toilet, throwing it in the trash, or stepping on it will not kill it), and 2) It will preserve the tick so that if your dog becomes sick, your veterinarian can identify or test the tick to determine if it was carrying any diseases. If possible, mark the container with the date you removed the tick.
Step 5: Check to see if the head of the tick was left in the skin.
If the head of the tick breaks off and remains in your dog’s skin, don’t worry. Sometimes this still happens, despite doing everything right. Simply disinfect the area with an antiseptic and just leave it alone – don’t try to dig the head out yourself. Eventually your dog’s body should expel it. However, continue to monitor the area and watch for any redness or swelling, which could indicate an infection. If that happens, call your veterinarian.
Step 6: Disinfect!
Immediately clean the area on your dog’s skin with antiseptic. Then remove your gloves and wash your own hands well with soap and water. Sterilize the tweezers or tick removal tool with alcohol. Then give your dog a treat for being so good!
Step 7: Keep watch.
Monitor the area where the tick was attached for the next several weeks. Watch for any signs of infection or rash around the bite. Most tick wounds heal within a few days, so if the area starts looking suspicious, bring your dog (and your tick-in-a-jar) to your veterinarian to have it checked out.
Also watch for any symptoms of tick-borne diseases, which include lameness, fever, swollen joints or lymph nodes, stiffness, fatigue, or loss of appetite.
Winning The War Against Ticks
Talk with your veterinarian about which tick-control product is the best one for your dog. Whichever method you choose, be sure to stay on schedule and be consistent about using it. While walking with your dog, stay in the center of the trail and avoid brushing up against tall grass or vegetation. When you stop to rest, try to sit on rocks or fallen logs, and not in the grass. And always check your dog for ticks when you return home (preferably before you go inside!)
Ticks, even more so than cockroaches and fleas, are the ultimate survivors, withstanding extreme heat and cold, lack of food (ticks can live up to 3 years without feeding), even being crushed flat! Their lifecycle enables them to remain a year-round threat to both us and our dogs, so year-round protection and vigilance is needed to keep them in check.
What do you use to protect your dog against ticks? Do you have any tick stories to share? Please tell us about them in the comments below!