A persistent threat to the health of dogs comes from organisms contained within ticks. These small arachnids are common in many landscapes — from forests, to tall grasses, and especially along the coast. While fleas may be a nuisance and most commonly cause itching and tapeworms, ticks spread much more potent and insidious pathogens.
What makes them so dangerous is that they are hard to find. They can be tiny – almost pin-head size up to about half an inch. Ticks can be anywhere on your dog — they have heat-seeking abilities, enabling them to locate your dog, and then they attach to warmer parts of the body. They are excellent at hide-and-seek. The head, neck, and ears are common attachment points. We have seen them between the toes, the groin, or even on eyelids and lips. When looking for ticks, look, feel, and repeat several times. Don’t forget to inspect inside the ears, too!
Ticks lay in wait on the ends of branches and grasses for you or your dog to walk past. When the branch is disturbed, the tick lets go and attaches to the dog. This process is know as questing. While they are good at finding a warm body, they cannot jump (thankfully). Once on the dog, it attaches and begins to suck blood. They use blood proteins to grow and mature. Many species of tick can be waiting for the right animal to pass by for over a year and a half without eating. They are patient. And they are waiting.
A tick may feed on a dog for a number of days. When they bite ticks inject saliva into the area, causing mild swelling and increased blood flow. The injection of saliva is what we are most concerned about. Living within the salivary glands of many species of tick are infectious organisms. These bugs flow into the dog with the saliva and it usually takes 24 hours for a tick to transmit most diseases, which provides us with time to identify and remove or kill the tick.
Common diseases carried by ticks in the Washington, Maryland, and Virginia areas include Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Ehrlichiosis, tick paralysis and others. These organisms can cause a variety of ailments, from arthritis-like signs, to fevers, clotting problems, and even death.
It is important to remove ticks when they are found. Transmission of most diseases does not happen until the tick has been attached to a dog for about a day. Gently grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull it directly off. Try to not crush the tick and use tweezers, if available.
Check your dog after every walk, especially after strolling through the woods or grasslands. This is the first line of defense. Next, use an effective flea/tick preventive. Owing to our mid-Atlantic environment, appropriate preventives should be used year-round. Preventives include topical applications, collars, and oral chews. The preventives work to rapidly kill ticks that bite dogs, with the goal of killing them before they have the opportunity to transmit disease.
We recommend use of an oral chew such as Simparica or NexGard for several reasons. First is simplicity. You know the dog ate it and second they are highly effective. The topicals can lose effectiveness if your dog is bathed often or if the dog swims frequently. Another option is a collar, such as Seresto. It is long-lasting and has been shown to be quite effective, as well. These preventives, although useful, are not 100% effective and you should always practice good tick hygiene and inspect your dog frequently.
Tick-borne disease is common in our area. Please use appropriate caution to prevent your pup from getting a tick-borne disease. And if you have any concerns about ticks, do not hesitate to contact us or your regular veterinarian.
Dan Teich, DVM is Medical Director at District Veterinary Hospital Eastern Market.