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Ticks on Pets: How to Spot & Remove
By: Trupanion Staff | Updated May 20, 2023
While many pet owners think ticks are closely related to fleas, the tick is very different. While the flea is a six-legged jumping insect, the tick is of the arachnid family and therefore more closely related to spiders.
Unlike their insect cousins, ticks can survive at near-freezing temperatures, unaffected by the application of even the toughest household repellents and can transfer nasty infections such as Lyme disease and spotted fever to your beloved canine companion.
Multiple ticks may deprive your dog or cat of enough blood to cause anemia, and certain female ticks produce a toxin which can even cause a rare paralysis in your pet. Plus, with the parasitic pests happy to live on several hosts in their lifetime of up to three years, carrying a tick into the home could spell trouble for more residents than just the family pet.
Is it a tick or something else?
Only about as large as the head of a pin and usually black or brown in color, ticks can be challenging to see.
You may think tick prevention in pets is as simple as checking your dog or cat regularly, but this is untrue. The hair-covered body of a dog is not nearly as appetizing to ticks as the more secluded, hairless regions. Namely, around the ears, joints of the legs, and between the toes are where you're most likely to find them. Regularly running your hands over your dog’s back and stomach is a good idea but remember to check the less exposed parts, too.
Another common indication of ticks is irritation. If your dog is shaking its head or legs in an agitated way, this could signal discomfort from a tick. Similarly, signs of abnormal weakness and fatigue, loss of appetite, or shivering could indicate a fever caused by an unwelcome guest. Check your pet regularly and thoroughly for any signs of bites or scabs.
Quick facts on ticks
- Eight-legged arachnid
- 1/8th to 1/4th of an inch in length
- Up to three years, dependent on finding a suitable host to complete life cycle
- Can survive extreme cold
- Can transfer Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and more
Myths and misconceptions
Ticks, like many parasites, carry with them a lot of misconceptions. Whilese these can make good stories for kids, some of the things spouted as "fact" are really fiction. For example, one of the most common misconceptions about ticks is that they are summer creatures solely found in warmer weather. Many people believe ticks do not survive beyond the fall months. This is not the case. Unlike fleas, ticks can and do survive (and sometimes thrive) in more extreme, harsh climates, including winter freezes.
Because your dog can get ticks any time of the year, be sure to check them every time they come back inside from walks or playtime outdoors. Ticks can be sneaky, so look close!
Some people also believe that ticks jump or fall from trees. This is possibly due to many humans finding ticks nestled on their scalps or elsewhere on the head. However, this is simply because ticks are talented climbers and will usually seek out protective areas (where there is a lot of hair) to attach and feed. In reality, ticks can be found much lower to the ground and will simply jump up on passing animals and humans.
How ticks attach to pets
If your dog spends a lot of time outside in warm weather, particularly in green environments such as parks and fields (or even your own garden), they're at higher risk of acquiring a tick. While ticks can survive winters, they tend to be more "out and about" in the open during warmer months.
Ticks can be picked up from vegetation such as bushes or grass that a curious dog may decide to go sniffing around in, or from other pets he meets.
Upon landing on a dog, the tick inserts its mouth parts into the unfortunate animal’s skin, holding itself securely in place. A sticky "glue" produced by glands on the tick’s body also helps it stay attached.
Things to look out for
Ticks can cause a range of symptoms in your dog, from mild skin irritation to full-blown fever. Here are some of the clearest signs that your dog may be carrying parasitic passengers:
- Skin irritation, itching. Dog might shake body parts or scratch against objects
- Inflammation and redness around the bitten area
- Mild to high fever
- Loss of appetite
- Lethargy and fatigue
- Depression and reduced personality
Any of these symptoms may occur only for a few hours or continue for days or weeks. If your dog is showing these signs, it’s worth checking for ticks.
Dangers to your pet's health
Beyond the initial symptoms of discomfort, more serious health hazards may make themselves apparent. Once a tick has been feeding for more than around 10 or 12 hours, dangerous blood borne diseases can be passed on to your dog or cat. These include Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and encephalitis, as well as so-called "tick paralysis," a rare disablement brought on by a toxin found in certain female ticks. Prolonged feeding may also lead to anemia from blood loss in your pet.
How serious is it? If dealt with rapidly, a tick will not pose a serious threat to your pet. However, if left unnoticed or untreated for a significant time, these tiny terrors could damage your pet’s long-term health or—worst of all—even cause issues which endanger their life.
Removing ticks from pets
This is why tick prevention in pets is critical, to also help catch ticks early on before they infect. If you ever had a tick as a child, your parent or grandparent may well have soaked the critter in alcohol before removing it, under the notion that this makes the tick lame and easier to remove. This is not true.
You can and should place the tick into alcohol after removal, but all you need to relieve your dog or cat of a tick is a clean pair of tweezers and a steady hand.
Steps to remove a tick from a Pet
Removing ticks is straightforward and painless for both dog and owner if you know what you're doing. The first thing to do when removing a tick from your dog is to ensure that you have the appropriate tools. You will need:
- Clean, ideally sterilized tweezers (you can sterilize by submerging the tweezers in boiling water for a few minutes and allowing to cool before use)
- Rubber gloves to avoid infection
- Veterinary disinfectant
- Alcohol (this should be rubbing alcohol, not something from the drinks cabinet)
- Small sealable plastic bag, such as a sandwich bag
To remove the tick
- Put on rubber gloves to protect your hands.
- Take the clean tweezers and gently grasp the head of the tick where it attaches to the skin. Press down slightly to grip as close to the skin as possible.
- Important: Pull slowly and steadily on the tick until it begins to slide out. If you tug or yank suddenly, you risk breaking off part of the parasite in your dog’s skin, which is bad news.
- Immediately dab some disinfectant on the affected area to prevent infection, being especially careful if near your pet’s eyes.
- Place the tick in your alcohol to kill it.
- At this point, it is a good idea to save the tick in the plastic bag. Strange though this may sound, if your dog does later contract symptoms of disease or infection, it could be important to identify the breed of tick that was found.
Learn more about parasite prevention in pets to keep your pet safe all year round.