It’s time for tick talk. We live in the geographical bull’s eye for Lyme disease. Our pets live with us, and whether we like it or not, we share our homes with arachnids and the diseases they spread.
Spring is well under way and the weather is tick nirvana. Those little critters know how to find you and your four-legged friends.
Protect yourself and your pet family with knowledge. Here are fifteen “must-know” facts about ticks and the diseases they spread:
- Size doesn’t matter. Ticks are tiny bugs that range in size from a poppy seed to a watermelon seed. These tiny ticks are easy to overlook, especially on hairy hosts such as Fido and Fluffy.
- Creepy crawlers. Ticks don’t jump or fly. They crawl from grass, trees, or other vegetation onto their hosts, and typically continue crawling around the host for a few hours before attaching and feeding.
- Ticks are clever chemists. Before biting, ticks numb their host with a local anesthetic-type chemical, so the bite goes unnoticed. They attach themselves with a superglue-like substance. This explains the little “chunk of flesh” that often accompanies ticks that are pulled off dogs.
- It’s not all about Lyme. Lyme disease is spread by deer ticks, which are very common in our area. But deer ticks also spread other diseases, including anaplasmosis and human babesiosis. One tick bite can infect the host (such as human or dog) with multiple diseases.
- Understand your pet. Symptoms of tick disease can vary in pets. Some have subtle signs and simply “aren’t quite right.” Other pets are sicker. They will be achy and lethargic, with decreased appetites. Less commonly, tick diseases can trigger severe illness such as meningitis or kidney disease.
- Poppy seeds are too small to find on pets. The juvenile deer tick, or nymph, is tiny like a poppy seed. These are usually too small to see on pets.
- Know your ticks. Besides the deer tick, the dog tick and the less common lone star tick are also in our neighborhoods and spread diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, bartonellosis (“cat scratch disease”), and ehrlichiosis. Deer ticks have a black head and “chest” and a red body. Dog ticks are more evenly brown, with lighter sets of patterned lines. The lone star tick is very easy to identify, with a white spot in the middle of its back.
- The smorgasbord. Ticks are blood suckers. Their bite can last for days, as they feed slowly from their host. During this time, the tick becomes big and engorged with blood. If you find an engorged tick on yourself or your pet, it has been there for days or possibly a week or more.
- Prime tick season is now. Ticks are most active during spring and fall. They thrive on cool evenings and warm days. During the summer, ticks are more likely to seek cooler areas in the shade. They hide under bushes, in forests, and around your deck.
- Don’t be fooled by winter. Winter is not a tick-free season. Ticks survive all year, and will actively search for a blood meal if temperatures are above freezing. This is typical weather for New England.
- Ticks don’t have calendars. Deer ticks have a two-year life cycle. They don’t check the calendar before searching for a meal. Even in February, if it’s above freezing, they are looking for blood. Protect your pet and use tick prevention all year.
- City-dwellers, beware. Downtown areas are not tick-free zones. Ticks attach to and travel on birds, and can be dropped in anyone’s backyard, manicured garden, or outdoor flowerpots. Pets that dwell here need protection, too.
- Protect Fido and Fluffy. There are many products available to help protect your pets against ticks, but they only help if you use them. Common products include topical pesticides, which are typically applied on the skin of the neck or shoulders. However, these products expose both the pet and family to pesticide chemicals. Fortunately, there are products now available for dogs in pill form that kill ticks and fleas. These chewable tablets are FDA-approved medicines, not pesticides. They are safe and very effective, with the added bonus that family members are not exposed to chemical residues. Ask your veterinarian for more information.
- Fido requests his Lyme vaccine. Vaccines help protect dogs from Lyme disease. Unfortunately, there are no vaccines for the other tick diseases.
- Cats are not little dogs. Never, ever, use dog tick prevention on cats. Cats have different biochemical pathways and enzymes than dogs, which means Fluffy may react severely to Fido’s tick product.
Now would be a good time to review your pet’s parasite prevention, so that ticks don’t take a bite out of your summer fun.