Ticks and your dog

Fleas can be the bane of a pet parent’s life, but another critter that gets less attention is the tick.

These small, spider-like bugs feed on the blood of dogs and other mammals. Not only do they make your dog uncomfortable, but they could transfer any infection that they’ve picked from another host to your dog. If you spot a tick on your pet, the natural instinct is to try to remove it immediately. However, it is crucial to remove ticks correctly. Removing a tick incorrectly could leave the mouth parts of the parasite embedded in your pet’s skin, risking infection.

 
So how can you prevent ticks from biting your dog? And what can you do to remove them safely if your canine already has them? Let’s take a look.  


What are ticks?  

Ticks are small, spider-like, egg-shaped insects with large bodies and small biting heads. Like fleas and other parasites, they feed on the blood of animals, but ticks latch on to the flesh of the host, digging its mouth parts into the skin and staying there for as long as it can. A common variety in the United States and Canada is Dermacentor variabilis, also known as the American Dog Tick or Wood Tick. Unlike fleas, ticks are responsible for spreading a range of life-threatening diseases among humans, making it essential to eliminate them from your dog and your home.  


How does my dog get ticks? 

The most common routes by which ticks could find their way onto your dog are:  

  • Other dogs: Being the social creatures that they are, dogs most commonly catch ticks and other parasitic bugs from their own kind. Sniffing around and playing with other people’s canine pets can allow unlatched ticks to hop from one body to the other.  
  • Wildlife: Has your dog ever chased a rabbit? A raccoon? Wild animals spend all their time out there in the wild, meaning that they are even more susceptible to ticks than your dog. If your dog catches or toys with rabbits, raccoons or squirrels, they could pick up ticks from them.  
  • People: If you like to spend time outside ‒ hiking in the hills or playing field sports, for example ‒ then you could be the source of your dog’s ticks. Humans can easily carry ticks into the home on clothing or in hair, allowing them to get to your pet. Equally, other pet owners who visit your home might bring unwanted visitors with them.  
  • Vegetation: Dogs are active pets. They love to run free in the garden, at the park or in the fields. But contact with grass and bushes means there is a high chance of ticks brushing off onto your dog’s hair or skin. 

 

What are the symptoms of ticks? 

Ticks most commonly feed on dogs between the toes, behind the ears, under the legs and around the head and tail, so keep an eye on their behavior and look out for signs of itching and discomfort. Ticks have large white, black or brown bodies, and you should be able to see it attached to your pet’s skin if you inspect the area closely and you can easily feel them if you run your hands systematically through your dog’s fur starting on his head and moving over his body. 


How to remove a tick from a dog

Removing ticks is not a simple job. Unlike fleas, the complex mouthparts of ticks are purpose-designed to resist removal, so taking a tick out by force risks leaving part of the critter in your dog’s skin. The body of a tick is also soft, and squeezing could put infected blood back into your animal’s system, leading to illness.  

Removing ticks is quick and painless if you know how to do it. With rubber gloves on to avoid being bitten yourself, use a specially designed tick removal hook that you should be able to get from your veterinarian or local pet store. The hook has a narrow slot which needs to be slid under the tick at skin level making sure it’s not tangled in the fur and is securely around the tick’s mouthparts. Then rotate the hook several times to gently easy the mouth parts out of the skin.  

Bending or twisting could break off the body from the mouthparts, which will then stay lodged in the skin. Place the tick in rubbing alcohol or strong spirit to ensure it is dead, then inspect your dog’s skin closely to check for any remnants. Finish by cleaning the bite with an antiseptic wipe or spray.  

Petting your dog during the process to keep her calm will make the job easier for you. Your pet may be calmer if another person pets and reassures them while you work. If you are at all unsure or nervous about doing this yourself, take your dog to your vet who will remove the tick for you.  

 

How to prevent ticks in dogs 

The golden rule of tick prevention is to protect your pet’s environment as well as your pet. There is little point clearing your dog of ticks if the house or garden are still infested.  


After removing ticks, and with your pet clear of the little biters, clean the house thoroughly. Vacuum all carpets and soft furniture and put the dust bag in a plastic bag before throwing it in the trash outside. Just a small infestation can quickly spread as the ticks will breed.  


The same goes for the yard. You might not associate gardening with pest control, but with long grass and wild shrubbery being a favorite place for ticks, keeping the yard tidy and trimmed short can make a big difference to the risk your dog faces when playing outside.  


Consider using tick collars and other preventative products for your dog. These collars and sprays contain odorous chemicals that ticks find unpleasant, deterring them from biting. Combined flea and tick collars are also available for double protection.  

 

Tick paralysis - a silent killer

Typically, the risk posed by ticks to your pet is limited to some discomfort and a possible infection from any previous hosts. But the females of some tick varieties ‒ including the American Dog Tick, Rock Mountain Wood Tick and Deer Tick ‒ secrete a neurotoxin upon biting which leads to paralysis. This paralysis begins in the lower extremities and spreads upwards through the body, and can pose a risk to life if it affects your dog’s diaphragm, restricting breathing. If you find a tick on your dog and suspect that paralysis may have taken effect, visit your veterinarian straight away.

There are also lots of tickborne diseases which can affect humans, so it’s important to regularly keep on top of pest control in your home and ensure you dispose of any ticks you find on your dog carefully. You can find out more about tickborne disease of the United States here.