Ticks are incredibly pesky, and they love dogs. Many pooches who spend a lot of time in the woods are well acquainted with ticks, and you may have even had the difficult experience of removing an enlarged tick or three from your dog’s body…
No thank you.
Ticks love dogs because there’s a lot of fur to nestle under as they do their business and suck blood like vampires. Dogs also have numerous crevices and creases around their bodies, and these are perfect places for ticks to remain undetected.
Even though they're difficult to look at and unsettling to think about, their creepy crawly nature isn’t even the worst part about them. The most dangerous thing about these critters is that they spread disease.
Dogs, in many cases, are very vulnerable to these diseases and there aren’t always vaccines for tick-borne illnesses. So, it’s our job to take measures that reduce the chance of our dogs getting sick from ticks, even if we can't always prevent them.
That’s what we’ll discuss in this article.
Also note that by keeping your dog free from tick-borne illness, you keep yourself and your family safe. Dogs can spread diseases to humans, and ticks are jam-packed with diseases that can spread to us via our dogs.
First Step: Tick-Prevention Medicine
If you live in an area dense with ticks or you know that there are tick-borne diseases spreading in your community, find some tick prevention medicine.
At first, it seems strange that there are medicines that can prevent ticks. If ticks attach to your dog through activity in nature, how can a medicine intercede in that process? Let's take a look:
Oral Chews or tablets: The active ingredients in oral tick medicines enter your dog’s bloodstream. The ingredient is safe for your dog but fatal to ticks (and fleas in many cases). So, if the tick starts drawing blood from your dog, it will fall off and die before it has time to transmit any diseases it's carrying.
It often takes one day to a few a weeks for a tick to transmit disease.
Topical medicines: Topical medicines simply rub onto your dog’s back and produce a smell that deters ticks and makes it hard for them to survive if they end up latching on anyway.
For those who live in tick-heavy areas, it’s smart to use a combination of these medicines in summertime (surprise, every inch of the continental United States is home to one or more species of tick).
What to Look for in an Anti-Tick Product
The first thing to make sure of is that the products you’re using are FDA-approved. Tick prevention medicines, whether topical or oral, contain strong active ingredients.
Some of these ingredients could be toxic to dogs in high dosages. The wrong mixture of topical ingredients could severely irritate your dog’s skin and lead to a host of separate problems like severe scratching or hotspots.
These issues aren’t as likely when you’re using a well-regarded product that’s been approved by the FDA.
It’s also important to talk to your vet about using one product or another. They’ll know whether certain products are safe and effective for dogs like yours.
They’ll also be able to tell you if the products you’re considering conflict with any other medications that your dog is taking. It’s important to get their opinion before you start implementing any kind of tick-prevention program even if you just send an email with questions.
Topical, oral, or both
The particular type of tick-prevention product you use should depend on the area in which you live and the types of activities you do with your dog. Here are some activity-based suggestions:
- Low contact with nature: talk to your vet about using a topical medicine only. You can apply the medicine before you go on your monthly walk through nature and check your dog thoroughly afterward. That way, you don’t have to introduce a regular oral medicine into their bloodstream.
- Moderate contact with nature: Use an oral medicine. That way, your dog will be protected on the off-chance that there’s a tick or two waiting in your dog's favorite park-side bush.
- Regular, extended contact with nature: Use topical and oral medicines. The topical medicine will do its part to ward off ticks in the moment, and the oral medicine will make sure that any ticks to make it aboard will be eliminated quickly.
How to Prevent Ticks from Getting On Your Dog in The First Place
There are a number of things you can do to reduce the chances of your dog getting ticks. Each one requires a little effort on your end, but it’s well worth it when you’re looking out for your dog’s health.
The most important things are tick-checking, knowing symptoms, and creating a hostile environment for ticks in your yard.
1. Check Your Dog for Ticks
Check them either every evening or at the end of every outside play session.
It’s a pretty simple labor of love, and your dog will just feel like you’re petting them. If you do this once or twice per day, odds are you’ll catch every tick in a short amount of time.
You’ve got to check the whole body, though. The obvious stretches of your dog's fur along the body are where most of the ticks will show up. These are the ones that are easiest to spot and pick off.
The sneakier ones are often those that hang around long enough to transmit disease. Here are the sneaky target areas to check each time you examine your dog for ticks:
Inside & around the ears
Ticks make their way into the ears sometimes, and they love hanging out behind the ears as well. Anywhere that’s warm, moist, and hidden is a tick paradise.
The head and ears are also some of the most active areas of the dog’s body, meaning that the head might get more contact with bushes and shrubs (tick habitats) than the rest of the body.
Before you move forward to check the eyes, feel the perimeter of your dog’s collar to see if there are ticks underneath. The collar is a common spot that gets forgotten.
Inside & around the eyelids
Terrible as it sounds, ticks can make their way into dogs’ eyelids in some cases. These are really dangerous areas, particularly because they irritate your dogs eyes and could easily lead to infection.
These infections could impair your dog’s vision. Fortunately, most of the ticks around your dog’s eyes will be visible on the outside of their eyelids. Some might find their way to the rim of the eye but still be visible.
In the worst cases, the tick will have lodged itself underneath the eyelid. At first, these instances are difficult to notice because ticks are quite small before they start drawing blood, depending on the stage of the tick's life cycle.
Adult ticks will be easy to notice because they’re already quarter-inch long. Feel along the rim of your dogs eyelids to see if there are any unusual lumps.
If you find a tick, contact your vet and have them instruct you on how to remove it. If it’s really lodged, it might not be something you can safely take care of at home; it might require a visit to the veterinarian’s.
Tail, front legs, hind legs, paws
The tail is another area that gets attacked by ticks. The fold of a tail is often a damp, covered area that ticks can thrive in.
You don’t have to be too exploratory, just simply lift the tail and examine the base. You should be able to spot any ticks pretty quickly.
Then, move along to the hind legs. Right around the inner hip of both legs is a common spot for ticks to latch. Remember, ticks like covered areas that aren’t exposed to the elements. Any folds or creases are the best places to look.
The same is true for the front legs. Look around the crease of the hip. While you’re checking each leg, work your way down the thigh toward the paw. When you get there, check between each of your dog’s toes.
Toes are a common spot to find ticks that might have been waiting on the ground, and the toe crease is a perfect environment for them because it’s closed off and seldom checked.
No matter how hard you check, it's unlikely that you'll always find every tick. That's why it's important reduce the number of ticks in your environment by taking simple steps in your yard. Let's find out how to do that.
2. Eliminate Ticks in Your Yard
If you’re getting serious and you have an hour or two, check out this Tick Management Handbook created by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. Even if you’re not in the northeastern United States, the guide should give you rock-solid tick management insights.
In fact, reading that guide will give you deep knowledge about how ticks live, feed, distribute themselves, and end up latching to you and your loved ones (furry or otherwise).
If you don’t have that much time right now, here are some key points that will make it more difficult for ticks to thrive on your property:
Eliminate common tick habitat
What’s a tick’s habitat, you might ask? Well, pretty much any crowded or covered organic space other than short grass.
Long grass, leaf litter, brush piles, weeds, and wood piles. These are all great places for ticks to lay in wait. If you have less debris and ground cover on your lawn, you’ll have fewer ticks hiding there. Similarly, if you keep your lawn short, you’ll keep it from turning into a mini tick jungle.
Rake and brush all of that ground cover debris to the edges of your lawn or bag it up and send it away. Further, avoid ground cover plants that provide a short canopy at around ankle-level. Pachysandra is a commonly used ground cover that could be housing hundreds of ticks in your yard.
Shift common areas away from the perimeter
If you’ve got overhanging tree branches or a forest on the perimeter of your yard, bring your commonly used areas in and away from the outskirts.
The idea is to spend the majority of your time at least ten feet from those areas. If a playhouse is on the perimeter of your lawn and next to the forest, for example, odds are that ticks will gravitate there. If the same playhouse is ten or twenty feet from the forest, it’s a lot harder for ticks to get there without using a small animal as transport.
Further, it’s wise to lay a foundation of wood chips or mulch underneath play areas. Give about three yards of buffer between the play area and your natural lawn. Ticks aren’t as likely to traverse those materials.
Pick up ticks that you find in the protected area and dispose of them. That way, they won't reproduce within the area you're trying to keep tick-free.
Mind small animals and things that attract them
Ticks go through a three-phase life cycle. At each stage, they get progressively larger and utilize larger animals for blood and transportation.
Engorged females fall off of large mammals and lay their eggs on the forest floor or in the grass. Eggs hatch and larvae emerge, clinging to small rodents, birds, and even humans in some cases.
Rodents and birds spread those larvae far and wide, providing a comfortable home for them as they transform into nymphs. Nymphal ticks typically latch to small and medium-sized animals, at which point they grow to maturity.
As mature ticks, they find one final host, and that host tends to be a dog, deer, human, or other large animal. This is what’s known as the “3-host life cycle.” The tick leeches on three separate animals before it reproduces or dies.
The point is, ticks need all of the animals around your home to survive. That means they’re attached to those animals. They fall off where those animals spend the most time. Then, once they're off, they wait for another host to come by and latch onto whoever comes first.
So, place bird feeders and deer-attractants at strategic points where you do not walk or spend time. Make sure your dog doesn’t spend time there, either. Similarly, prevent against rodents and other animals in or around your home.
Use bio-pesticides or chemical treatments if necessary
There are a number of pesticides you can use in order to treat your lawn and prevent ticks. Specifically, you can use these on perimeters and around areas that might be most prone to tick populations.
Here’s a good list of popular options. Among the top choices are Permethrin, Bifenthrin, Carbaryl, Cyfulthrin, Purethrin, and Deltamethrin. Products with these chemicals could effectively diminish the tick population on your property.
Still, your lawn is one of the areas that your dog makes the most contact with. Hard chemicals like pesticides are environmental markers that could contribute to health issues in your pets.
A safer alternative could be the use of bio-pesticides, particularly fungi, that are known to kill ticks. So long as these fungi aren’t dangerous to dogs, they’re a healthier option for you, your dog, and your lawn.
Studies show that various strains of fungi may be effective agents to kill ticks without killing the surrounding flora. Look here for the EPA’s examination of bio-pesticides so you can get a good feel for your options.
Another common option is the use of diatomaceous earth. This is a finely-ground natural solution that can deter or kill ticks. It's an excellent organic tick preventive product.
3. Know Signs of Tick-Borne Disease
If we can spot symptoms of disease in our dogs, we can get them to the vet quicker. That could save a life, or at least greatly improve the quality of your dog’s life as it deals with a tick-borne disease.
The most common tick-borne disease is Lyme Disease.
Symptoms of Lyme Disease include:
- Lameness in one or more legs
- Inflammation, contributing to lameness
- High body temperature & fever
- Lethargy, visible symptoms of depression or extreme tiredness.
Another big tick-borne disease is called Ehrlichiosis. This is the transmission of a dangerous bacteria that infects your dog’s white blood cells.
Early symptoms of Ehrlichiosis include:
- Periods of lameness caused by inflammation
- Difficulty eating and weight loss
- Throwing up and diarrhea
- Mobility challenges, issues with balance
These are the symptoms that come about as the white blood cells are infected and your dog starts to grapple with the illness. These show up within the first few weeks of the tick bite.
After that point, the disease moves into what is known as the “subclinical phase” wherein the surviving bacteria plant themselves in the spleen. The dog ceases to show symptoms because it’s not actively battling the bacteria.
At this point, the disease may or may not progress. If it does, it moves into the “chronic phase.”
Symptoms of chronic Ehrlichiosis include:
- Decreased blood platelet numbers leading to excess bleeding and anemia
- Optical inflammation, bleeding, and (potential) blindness
- Challenges walking and balancing
- Damaged kidneys causing the dog to drink and urinate more frequently
- Inflammation and severe lameness
These symptoms could eventually lead to fatality in dogs if they go untreated.
Click here for a more comprehensive list of tick-borne diseases and their symptoms.
4. Avoid Ticks When Possible
In other words, be “tick-aware.”
We can’t reasonably avoid all of the areas that ticks live because they literally live everywhere. They’re flying overhead attached to birds, they’re roaming our homes’ foundations on the backs of mice, and they’re definitely lingering in the long grasses you pass on your morning walk.
Still, we can do our best to avoid the places that are extremely dense with ticks. Try to avoid contact with overhanging branches on trails. Avoid brushes and shrubbery whenever possible, and prevent your dog from smelling those areas if you can.
Further, steer clear of patches of ground cover or natural debris like leaf piles or bundles of sticks. It sounds simple, but this is one of the best ways to reduce your contact with these little blood suckers.
If there’s a fork in the path and one leads out into an open field, choose that option over the route that takes you under a canopy of trees. It’s these things that can make the difference and prevent you from crossing paths with the one tick that spreads disease to you and your pet.
So, What Have We Learned?
Let's do a quick recap of the most important things to remember on our crusade against ticks and the diseases they carry.
We should remember to:
- Check our dogs for ticks each day
- Eliminate tick habitats in our yards
- Create buffers between ticks and commonly used areas
- Watch out for symptoms of tick-borne illnesses
- Use anti-tick medicine whenever necessary
If we do those things, we've got a great chance of keeping our dogs happy and healthy! Ticks don't need to be an issue for your pooch, but only if you take the time and make the effort to protect them.