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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Ticks: Opportunistic Bloodsuckers and Vectors for Disease Transmission

Now that you’ve gotten up to speed on the Clinical Signs, Infectious Diseases, and Natural Treatment Options for Fleas, let’s move onto the flea’s fellow blood-sucking proverbial cousin, the tick.


Tick Appropriate Environments and Situational Opportunism

Like fleas, ticks require the right combination of environmental factors to flourish: warmth, moisture, and nourishment.

Urban areas tend to be less densely concentrated with ticks as compared to suburban and rural environments, mostly due to the overall lack of foliage. Long grasses and wooded areas provide safe havens for ticks to reproduce, as well as plentiful animal hosts from which they can acquire their blood based nutrition.

Since moving to the urban jungle of Los Angeles, I rarely see ticks attached to my patients’ bodies, and infrequently attain positive diagnoses for tick borne disease. Most of my patients live a coddled, indoor existence, with most of their outdoor excursions limited to sidewalks and minuscule patches of closely-clipped lawn.

In contrast to fleas, ticks cannot jump; they instead crawl onto their host. This is unlikely to happen as your pet lounges on the carpet inside your house, but a jaunt through a grassy field or the woods permits plenty of opportunity. Ticks lurk on blades of grass or leaves and latch on to animals’ coats as they pass by. Carbon dioxide, warmth, and other chemical attractants exuded by animals and people direct ticks to their next meal.

Tick Disease Transmission

The physical damage caused by the bite of a tick isn’t typically a life threatening concern. Yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health report a variety of potentially fatal diseases originating in ticks, including:

  • Bacteria — Anaplasmosis, Ehrhlichia, Lyme disease (Borrelia burdorferi), Mycoplasma (Haemobartonella), Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF), Tularemia (AKA "Rabbit Fever")
  • Parasite — Babesia (a single celled organism, or protozoa)\
  • Virus — Tick- borne encephalitis virus (TBEV, caused by a Flavivirus)
  • Other — Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI, caused by an unknown agent), Tick Paralysis (caused by a neurotoxin in tick saliva)

The tick pierces the skin with its sharp mouthparts (the chelicerae and pedipalps), allowing for the feeding tube (hypostome) to enter the host. The blood sucking then begins, and the tick can transmit or contract an infectious organism to/from the host. Not every tick bite equates with the transmission of disease causing organisms, but it’s best to aware of the clinical signs and to seek a veterinary examination should they occur.

Clinical Signs of Tick Infestation and Tick Borne Disease

Unlike fleas, you’ll likely not see your pet chewing, licking, and scratching at the site where a tick latches onto his skin. Visual inspection of your pet’s skin by separating tufts of hair and closely feeling all body parts typically permits discovery of a tick. The head, ears, neck, and limbs are common locations, as they tend to touch the grass or leaf where the tick awaits its prey.

Animals having a tick borne disease can show clinical signs including (but not exclusive to):

  • Anorexia (decreased appetite)
  • Hyperthermia (elevated body temperature)
  • Joint and muscle soreness
  • Lethargy or reduced mobility
  • Mucous membrane pallor (pale gums)
  • Tachypnea (elevated respiratory rate)

Besides the direct damage to the joints, nervous system, internal organs (kidneys, etc.), and other body parts, tick borne organisms can potentially trigger immune mediated illnesses. Each time my dog, Cardiff, has an episode of Immune Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA), he undergoes extensive diagnostic testing and is medicated with a lengthy course of oral antibiotic therapy, regardless of his tick panel’s positive or negative result. All of Cardiff’s tests have come up negative, yet there exists the possibility that his body has not yet produced antibodies to a tick borne infectious agent at the time the test was performed. With this uncertainty, I prefer to use antibiotic therapy (sometimes more than one) under the guidance of an internal medicine specialist instead of losing valuable hours to days weeding through the complicated and frustrating diagnostic forest (it’s quite vast).

Common Sense Tick Prevention

Keeping your pet free from ticks requires the right combination of environmental control and prevention. My top recommendation is to not allow your pet to roam free in your yard or go off lead during hikes on the canyon trail or woods. If you prevent your pet from having access to the locations where ticks lurk, then their likelihood of exposure is greatly reduced.

For pets having access to parasite heavy areas, use a veterinary prescribed topical tick (and flea) preventative or an appropriate collar to repel or kill ectoparasites.

Removing a Tick from Your Pet’s Body

Most attached ticks don’t require a trip into your veterinarian’s office for an emergency removal. Yet I do suggest removing a tick upon discovery.

Pet caretakers can completely detach a tick’s mouthparts and head (collectively called the capitulum) from the skin’s surface using a tick removal tool or fine-tipped tweezers (not your ungloved hands). Once the offending arthropod is removed, contact your veterinarian for appropriate wound care instructions.

If you are uncertain that your pet has a tick on its skin, then having a veterinary evaluation is a safe plan. I’ve treated skin trauma associated with an owner accidentally removing a pet’s nipple which was thought to be a blood sucking parasite. Nearly always, there is a humiliated owner attached to these cases. Therefore, I strive to educate them that both male and female dogs (and cats) have nipples on the underside of their bodies that could appear like an imbedded tick.

I hope you and your pet have many non-traumatic outdoor adventures this summer, and stay free from ticks and other parasites.

Dr. Patrick Mahaney

Image: Pakhotin Andrey / via Shutterstock

Comments  4

Leave Comment
  • Tick Panel?
    07/10/2012 11:18am

    I wasn't aware there was such a thing as a tick panel. What is included on a tick panel?

    Are there antibiotics that are specific to treating problems associated with ticks?

  • 07/14/2012 02:09am

    Tick panel is a common term given to blood tests that look for evidence of antibody response to particular infectious organisms spread by ticks, like those that are listed in my article.
    Doxycycline is the antibiotic with with I am most familiar that is used to treat bacterial borne tick borne disease. Others (fluoroquinoloines, cephalosporins, etc) can also be used, but "Doxy" is cost effective and reliable for the long term use needed to treat these nasty critters.
    Thank you for your comments,
    Dr PM

  • Tick/Flea Prevention
    07/11/2012 03:12am

    Hi there Dr,

    I have been trying to apply the Frontline spot in between the shoulder blades of my 2 cats. Both of them hate the smell of it and they are so versatile that they either are able to scratch at the area with their back legs (then lick their paws) or turn their head and start licking the area. By the way, their are domestic short haired. What am i to do?

  • 07/14/2012 02:46am

    Thank you for your question.
    Your cat's circumstance certainly creates a challenge when applying topical medication.
    Firstly, I suggest you have a consultation/examination with your veterinarian to determine the best treatment for your situation.
    One thing to consider is your cat's potential exposure to fleas and ticks. If your cats are 100% indoor and are not currently faced with the onslaught of ectoparasites (i.e. you don't have another pet coming in/out of your home or an environment that supports a friendly place for fleas/ticks ready to enter your home), then you may be able to do without topical medications like Frontline/other.
    As each pet, circumstance, and environment is unique, it's best to directly work with your veterinarian to appropriately tailor a program.
    Good luck,
    Dr PM
    Twitter @PatrickMahaney

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