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Ticks and pets

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If your pet lives around a heavily-wooded area, it could be at risk for ticks. Ticks are blood-sucking parasites, but they are not insects.  Unlike insects, which have six legs, ticks have eight legs, making them more closely related to spiders.  Tick bites are painless, but the bite wound can become infected in your pet.  More importantly, ticks can carry and spread a greater variety of infectious organisms than any other parasite of pets.  For example, most ticks can carry blood parasites, such as those that cause feline infectious anemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.  Black-legged ticks (formerly known as deer ticks) carry Lyme disease, which can cause arthritis and several other chronic conditions in both pets and people.

Six species of ticks commonly infest dogs and (occasionally) cats in the United States:

  • the brown dog tick
  • the American dog tick
  • the black-legged (deer) tick
  • the Western black-legged tick
  • the Lone Star tick
  • the Gulf Coast tick

In general, different species are most common in different areas of the country.

Ticks have complicated life cycles that often take longer than a year and usually involve more than one host.  Adult female ticks feed on blood, which they use to produce eggs.  Tick eggs are usually laid in masses on the ground, where they hatch into tiny, six-legged larvae known as seed ticks.  The larva seeks out a host for feeding, drops off to the ground, and molts into a nymph.  The nymph seeks out and feeds on a second host, drops off to the ground, and molts to an adult. Male and female adults seek out a third host, feed, mate, and drop off to the ground. Males die soon after, while females eventually lay eggs to carry on the reproductive cycle.  Common hosts include rodents, livestock, dogs, deer, birds, and people.

Ticks usually must be attached to your pet for at least 24 hours to transmit disease, so it is important to find and remove them as soon as possible.  You should always do a full body check of pets and family members after they have been in woodland or brush areas.  It is important to look very carefully because some ticks, such as the black-legged tick, may be no bigger than the head of a pin.

If you find ticks on your pet, you should remove them by grabbing the tick with a pair of fine-pointed tweezers or a commercial tick removal device as close to the skin as possible and then pulling straight back with steady and gentle force.  Do not twist or jerk the tick, because this can break off the head, leaving it behind as a source of infection.  Do not crush, prick, or burn the tick because this can release disease organisms within the tick's body.

The best way to dispose of a tick is to place it in a plastic bag or other sealed container and deposit it in the trash.  You may elect to save the tick for identification in case illness arises later.  In this case, place the tick in a plastic bag or sealed container, and put it in the freezer.  Write the date of the bite on a piece of paper and place it in the bag with the tick.

Many topical flea products include agents that also kill and/or repel ticks.  Your veterinarian can recommend a product that is suitable for your pet.

Q&A

What types of illnesses do ticks cause in pets?

Tick bites can become infected, and ticks can carry and spread a variety of infectious diseases, including feline infectious anemia, Rocky Mountain spotter fever, and Lyme disease.  


When are pets likely to pick up ticks?

Pets become infested when they wander in woods, tall grasses, or brush during times when ticks are active.  Adult or immature ticks are active during spring through fall, and even during breaks in winter weather.


How can I protect my pets from ticks?

You should do a full body check of pets after they have been in woodland or brush areas, so as to find and remove ticks before they can transmit disease.  You can also treat your pets with a monthly flea-control product that is effective against ticks.  


What should I do if I find a tick on my pet?

If you find ticks on your pet, you should remove them by grabbing the tick with a pair of fine-pointed tweezers (or a commercial tick removal device) as close to the skin as possible.  Pull straight back with steady and gentle force until the tick pops free, then place it inside a plastic bag or other sealed container for disposal in the trash.  

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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