If you’ve spent any time outdoors, you and your fur babies have likely encountered ticks at some point. They’re attracted to people and their four-legged pets and can move between the two with ease. There are roughly 850 species of ticks around the world. Of these, a handful can carry pathogens which can result in disease for humans or animals.
The following is a primer for identifying the types of ticks that carry disease, how to test a tick for the presence of disease, and how to treat tick bites. For information on how to prevent and minimize the chance of tick-borne disease in dogs and cats, refer to the following blogs:
Natural Flea and Tick Prevention: https://drjudymorgan.com/blogs/blog/natural-flea-tick-prevention?_pos=2&_sid=b4a74331f&_ss=r
Natural Flea and Tick Prevention Revisited: https://drjudymorgan.com/blogs/blog/flea-and-tick-prevention-revisited?_pos=4&_sid=b4a74331f&_ss=r
Deadly Flea and Tick Prevention: https://drjudymorgan.com/blogs/blog/deadly-flea-and-tick-prevention?_pos=5&_sid=b4a74331f&_ss=r
What does a tick bite look like on a dog or cat?
In the absence of finding a tick feeding on its host, a tick bite looks like a small red bump, similar to a mosquito bite. These bumps often appear at the site of a tick bite or following tick removal and resolve themselves over a few days. Your pet can give you a clue if they are itching the site. If you see persistent itching, check the hair and the skin in the area. Some tick bites can also produce a “bull’s eye” at the bite site.
The best way to check your dog for ticks is to brush your fingers through your dog’s fur, applying enough pressure to feel any small bumps. If you feel a bump, pull the fur apart to identify it. An embedded tick will vary in size, from as tiny as a pinhead to as big as a dime. They are usually black, grey or brown. Depending on the size and location of the tick, its legs may also be visible.
To remove a tick, use-fine-tipped tweezers or tick removers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Clean the area around the bite with witch hazel.
What diseases can ticks transmit to dogs and cats?
Tick-borne diseases are categorized according to the type of bacteria that is transmitted from the tick to its host.
- Lyme Disease is a fast-growing problem around the world. It is caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria. Bites from black-legged ticks or deer ticks can transmit Lyme disease. Symptoms include fever, lethargy, anorexia, lameness, and swollen joints. Secondary heart disease, kidney disease, and seizures may occur.
- Ehrlichiosis in dogs is a rickettsia infection caused by the organisms Ehrlichia canis and Ehrlichia lewinii. These bacteria are spread by the brown dog tick, the Lone Star tick, and the Deer (black-legged) tick. Rickettsiae are a type of bacteria that inhabit a cell, in this case, the body's white blood cells. This disease is seen throughout the year and throughout the continental U.S., but is more common on the Gulf Coast, eastern seaboard, Southwest, California, and geographical areas that tend to have an abundance of warm days. Symptoms of this disease include lethargy, poor appetite, lymph node enlargement, abnormal bruising and bleeding, chronic eye inflammation, neurologic abnormalities, and occasional lameness. Chronic and severe forms of this disease are more representative in Doberman pinschers and German shepherds. Conventional treatment is a course of an antibiotic called doxycycline. Natural treatment of this disease includes the herbs salvia miltiorrhiza and ashwagandha, as well as quercetin, milk thistle, cordyceps (mushroom), and astragalus.
- Anaplasmosis is a disease of dogs (and rarely of cats) caused by an infectious organism called Anaplasma phagocytophilum. It is an unusual type of bacteria known as rickettsia. The disease is transmitted to dogs and cats by the brown dog tick and the deer (black-legged) tick. Symptoms include fever, lethargy, lack of appetite, malaise, joint pain and lameness, vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, labored breathing, seizures, and ataxia (lack of muscle and movement control). As with ehrlichiosis, conventional treatment is a 30-day course of the antibiotic doxycycline, which is the same medicine that treats other tick-borne infections. Likewise, natural treatments are similar to those for an ehrlichlia infection.
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is one of the more commonly known tick-borne diseases to affect dogs and humans. It is carried by the American Dog Tick, the Rocky Mountain Wood Tick, the Lone Star Tick, and the Brown Deer Tick. This disease has been found in much of North, South, and Central America. Signs include fever, poor appetite, swollen lymph nodes, and joint pain. Low platelets, which help in blood clotting, are often found. On occasion, neurological signs such as wobbliness can also occur. Since the bacteria is the rickettsia-type, conventional and holistic treatment will be similar to that of ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis.
- Babesiosis is a rare, sometimes severe, disease caused by the bite of a tick infected with Babesia microti, a microscopic protozoal parasite that infects red blood cells. Babesia species are found worldwide, although in North America, most cases of babesiosis occur in the southern United States. Babesiosis is considered a serious threat to racing greyhounds and pit bull terriers. Dogs typically present with the acute, severe form of babesiosis. Cats can be infected through tick bites or bite wounds from infected cats. Symptoms include abnormally dark urine, fever, weakness, pale mucous membranes, depression, swollen lymph nodes, and an enlarged spleen. Blood and urine tests may reveal anemia, thrombocytopenia (low platelets), hypoalbuminemia (low albumin, a blood protein), and bilirubinuria (a pigment from breaking down red blood cells is found in the urine). Conventional treatment for babesiosis includes the antibiotic clindamycin, sometimes in combination with quinine, azithromycin, and atovaquone. The curcumin in turmeric helps alleviate the symptoms of babesiosis. Artemesinin helps fight against the babesia parasite. Omega 3 fatty acids can decrease the inflammation associated with the disease.
Which tick species are important for dogs and cats?
Tick bites are often harmless and don’t cause any symptoms. However, ticks can cause allergic reactions, and certain ticks can pass diseases on to humans and pets when they bite. These diseases can be dangerous or even life threatening when not treated promptly. Ticks are efficient carriers of disease because they attach firmly when sucking blood, feed slowly and may go unnoticed for a considerable time while feeding. Ticks take several days to complete feeding.
Although there are at least 15 species of ticks in North America, only a few of these species are likely to be encountered by your dog or cat.
How do I safely remove a tick from my animal?
There are several tools available to remove a tick, including tick “pullers,” tick twisters, tick keys, and fine tipped tweezers. It is always best to use disposable gloves to handle the tick. If you must use your fingers, shield them with a tissue or paper towel to avoid infectious agents entering your body through mucous membranes or broken skin. Grasp the tick as close to the skin surface as possible. This reduces the possibility of the head detaching from the body upon removal.
Pull the tick straight out with a steady, even pressure. It may take a minute or two of constant, slow pulling to cause the tick to release. Take care not to twist or jerk the tick while pulling – this may cause the mouth parts to break off and remain in the skin, increasing the chances of infection.
After removing the tick, thoroughly disinfect the bite area and wash your hands with soap and water. In order to identify the type of tick found on your pet, you may wish to preserve it in rubbing alcohol for identification. Be sure to label the container with information about the time and place where the tick bite occurred or when the tick was discovered. This information will be of help to your veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment.
Should ticks be tested for disease? How are ticks tested for disease?
While saving and testing the tick can reveal any pathogens present, the results of tick testing should not be used for treatment decisions. Positive results showing that the tick contains a disease-causing organism do not necessarily mean that your pet has been infected. Negative test results can lead to false assurance. The onset of symptoms, and the presence of organisms in your pet’s blood work will often not appear until 3-14 days (with an average of 7 days) following the bite.
If you choose to have the tick tested, your veterinarian can guide you as to where in your state or region the tick is to be delivered, along with instructions for sending it.