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Understanding Ticks on Dogs and Cats

PetMD Editorial
Updated: January 22, 2021
Published: April 10, 2012
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No Time for Ticks

Your pets are walking targets for blood-sucking ticks to attach to and feed from. In order to prevent these arachnids (related to spiders and mites) and the potential diseases they carry, it helps to understand how these creatures develop.

1. Types of Ticks

There are two broad classifications for the more than 850 species of ticks. They are classed by body structure: soft ticks and hard ticks. Ticks in the Ixodidae family have a hard outer covering, called a scutum. Soft ticks – those without a scutum – belong to the Argasidae family. The most common ticks that prey on pets are the hard bodied ticks.

2. Four Life Stages

The majority of hard ticks require three different hosts to complete their development. During this development, ticks go through four stages of life. These stages are egg, larvae (or seed tick), nymph, and adult. A female lays several thousand eggs at a time, which will eventually hatch into the larval stage, known as seed ticks. At this stage of life, these small ticks (about 1/8-inch in size) have six legs.

3. Feeding Behavior of Seed Ticks

Ticks can’t jump, so they use blades of grass and other vegetation to elevate themselves to the height where they can easily grasp onto passing animals such as small rodents or birds. Proximate biochemical signals, such as rising carbon dioxide levels emitted by a warm blooded mammal, alert the ticks to passing hosts. This procedure is called "questing," and ticks use these behaviors to find their first host for an initial blood meal. After filling with blood over several days, the seed ticks fall to the ground again, where they molt (shed their outer skins) and become eight-legged nymphs.

4. Feeding Behavior of Nymphs

The nymph will then lie in wait for a second host to attach to and engorge on blood. The nymphs prefer a larger animal as a host, such as a raccoon or possum. Following engorgement, nymphs drop to the ground where they molt yet again to finally become adult ticks.

5. Completing the Cycle

The adult ticks then go on a hunt for a third, even larger host, such as a deer or dog, where they are able to feed and then breed, resulting in reproduction (i.e., eggs). Depending on the species of tick, the entire life cycle can take from two months to years to complete. There are some species of ticks that only require one host (or sometimes two) to complete their life cycle.

6. Tick Seasons

As ambient temperature and moisture levels rise, eggs hatch into larvae. Larvae feed and molt into nymphs during late summer. Nymphs will be inactive during winter and then start feeding again in the spring. After feeding and molting into adults through the summer months, the ticks spend the fall season feeding and breeding. Males will die off, while the females survive through winter and lay their eggs again the next spring.

7. Protecting Against Ticks

If you live an in area where ticks are prevalent, or if you are going to be taking your pet to a location that is known for ticks (e.g., wooded areas and open, grassy areas), protect your pet by applying a tick collar, a spot-on, or a spray to prevent ticks from making a meal out of your pet.

8. Removing Ticks

No matter the species or type of tick you encounter on your pet, it’s best to remove them carefully and completely. Know how to remove a tick safely  before attempting it, as a poorly conducted removal can cause damage – to you and/or your pet.

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