As ticks and related diseases and illnesses are becoming more prevalent, know how to protect your dog’s health
As the first glimpses of summer appear in different parts of the country, dogs and their owners are ramping up training and other activities before our bird and small game seasons return. All the fun can take a turn for the worse, however, if you aren’t proactive in searching for and removing ticks from your beloved companion as tick-borne diseases can do severe damage to a dog’s health if not caught soon enough.
The United States is host to many different types of these nasty arachnids, such as the blacklegged, dog, groundhog, Gulf Coast, Rocky Mountain wood, soft, and the Lone Star ticks. Of those, there are two types of blacklegged (deer and western) and dog ticks (American and brown). Most ticks thrive in heavily-wooded forest cover and grasslands, but are also found in cities, towns, and other populated areas. Even urban areas where deer and rodent populations have risen will harbor ticks. With this, each species is unique in its disease transmission and what they choose to feed on.
As one of the lead doctors at Cheat Lake Animal Hospital, a small animal general practice and emergency hospital in Morgantown, West Virginia, Dr. Lindsay Vega DVM notes that she frequently diagnoses dogs with Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne disease transmitted to pets and humans in the Mountain State.
“A lot of times these dogs come in sore, not wanting to walk, maybe having a shifting leg lameness, fever, or may not be eating,” Vega said.
Seasons of these ticks vary between spring, summer, and fall, though in some places they are active year-round. Additionally, as our climate warms, expect to see more active ticks in the winter. A 2019 report by the Environmental Protection Agency found that, as reported cases of Lyme disease have doubled since 1990, climate change has played a role in the deer tick’s range expanding such as into areas of Canada where previously not suitable for it.
Further, different ticks carry different diseases, and if an owner suspects their dog has contracted one of the more common ones—Lyme, ehrlichiosis, or anaplasmosis—a physical exam, including blood work, will help confirm or rule out these suspicions.
Yet, while ticks raise a certain level of concern in dog owners, there are ways to make sure your dog remains healthy.
Ways to protect a dog from ticks
There are plenty of ways to mitigate tick-related damage to your dog before you ever step into the field. Vega’s favorite, and a popular choice among many dog owners, is oral flea and tick medication, which comes in the form of a chewable treat. These are usually given monthly—some are on a 3-month schedule—but to be effective, an owner must keep up with the treatment schedule.
“With an oral product, you know your dog has ingested it, and they often enjoy the chewable-treat form,” she said. “If used as recommended for the specific product, then they work extremely well and effectively to prevent tick-borne illnesses.”
Vega also shared her thoughts on other methods of prevention, supporting the use of the Seresto brand collar and casting doubt on topical products, sprays, and over-the-counter collars.
“Topicals can cause skin irritation for some dogs and can get rubbed or washed off,” Vega said. “That’s why I think oral medication is better because it removes those outside factors that can decrease its efficacy. The Seresto collar is effective, and the advantage of this collar is that you don’t have to remember every month to give an oral medication or apply a topical treatment. The other advantage is it lasts eight months if used properly. A vital part of the Seresto collar working is that it’s tight to the dog’s skin.
“I don’t recommend sprays and over-the-counter products or collars because they don’t work as well as the previously mentioned products. For example, sprays are going to keep ticks away from a specific area, but it doesn’t protect the dog.”
If you choose to use a spray repellent, Sawyer Permethrin is supposed to work for up to 35 days and, while not safe to spray on our skin, bonds well with a dog’s fur and skin and doesn’t hurt them. Still, as a common pyrethroid, it’s best to keep permethrin application to sprays only, as ingesting it poses a risk to dog’s health.
Because permethrin is dangerous to other animals like cats and fish, there are plenty of other environment- and wildlife-safe options. Some of these sprays are Wondercide’s lemongrass and essential oil spray and UltraCruz‘ equine natural fly and tick spray. While the latter is designed for horses, using this kind of spray is common in the hunting world and is safe for the environment.
Proper ways to inspect a dog for ticks
For short-haired dogs with light coats, it’s relatively easy to spot ticks before they pose a threat, but only if you’re checking your dog after every outing. You always won’t catch all of them, but it’s still necessary to comb through your dog’s coat.
Vega also suggests checking specific places like the ears (especially the small skin pocket on the lateral aspect of the ear), armpits, skin folds, gums, eyelid margins, and in between toes.
Long-haired dogs or dogs with darker coats pose more difficulty catching ticks, but there are plenty of tools on the market to help pet owners check their animals.
“You’re not going to prevent your dog from getting ticks on them,” Vega said. “You aren’t going to find and remove all the ticks that come onto your dog. You can use a flea and tick comb, but the thing that will be doing the heavy lifting in keeping ticks off your dog is the flea and tick medication.”
How to properly remove ticks from a dog
Once you identify ticks on your dog, two scenarios demand different removal methods.
First, if the tick is crawling around and isn’t attached to your dog, it’s as simple as using your fingers to remove it. If the tick is attached, however, you will need to be more careful—you don’t want to separate the head from the body. There are tools designed to help with this such as special tweezers or tick keys that can be found at different online stores or marketplaces, but Vega notes that it’s not necessarily required to have a tool.
“You can easily use tweezers or your fingers to remove a tick that is attached,” she said. “Whatever you’re going to use to take the tick off, you want to get as close to the skin without pinching your dog and remove the tick in one motion without detaching the head.”
So what happens if you attempt to remove the tick and the head remains stuck in the dog’s skin? Vega recommends leaving it alone – the dog’s body will likely take care of the head on its own, and there’s no need for an owner to dig into the site. A residual tick head in the skin may increase the risk for a local infection but it’s unlikely to transmit tick-borne illness. Still, if this occurs, it’s best to monitor the area for infection or inflammation which would necessitate a visit to the veterinarian.
Finally, once a tick is removed, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly.
Tick-borne disease overview
Different ticks carry different transmissible diseases, but according to Vega, the most common in dogs are Lyme, ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
Reported by Peconic Bay Animal Hospital in Riverhead, New York, and confirmed by Vega, important information on these four bacterial diseases and how to treat them are as follows:
Lyme disease is a bacterial disease carried by deer ticks, and to contract it the host must be attached to a dog for roughly 48 hours. Once infected, a dog will show signs such as lethargy, fever, swollen lymph nodes and joints, and a lack of appetite. If untreated, an animal can develop serious issues such as kidney disease or heart and nervous system disorders, though Vega reports heart and nervous system disorders are uncommonly seen in dogs with Lyme. Dogs with kidney failure may show a variety of non-specific signs like poor appetite, diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss, and lethargy.
Treatment for acute infections is simple: oral antibiotics. This is not the case, however, for kidney problems related to Lyme disease, which is largely why catching the disease early is so important. Additionally, vaccinations for Lyme disease are available. Consult your veterinarian to determine if it’s a good option for your pet based on its exposure risk and geographic location.
Ehrlichiosis is commonly transmitted by brown dog and Lone Star ticks. Symptoms include lethargy, lack of appetite, fever, stiff joints, and bruising. Additionally, Anaplasmosis is transmitted through bites by western blacklegged and brown dog ticks. Signs of this bacterial infection are similar to ehrlichiosis, but also include vomiting and diarrhea and can develop within weeks of transmission. Anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis are both treated with antibiotics.
Finally, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is transmitted by the host-named Rocky Mountain tick and the American dog tick. The incubation period is 2-14 days and symptoms are similar to the other three infections. Fever is common initially, and disease varies from subclinical infections, skin issues, red and white blood cell and platelet issues, and eye and neurologic disorders. Clinically, this can look like lethargy, loss of appetite, pain and discomfort, or gastrointestinal signs.
Peconic Bay Animal Hospital also notes other transmissible diseases and illnesses in their article, including tick paralysis, haemobartonellosis, tularemia, babesiosis or piroplasmosis, cytauxzoonosis, and American canine hepatozoonosis.
Vega notes that in some cases of dogs contracting tick-borne illnesses, their bodies may identify their red blood cells or platelets as foreign and begin to attack and destroy them. This leads to severe anemia or low platelets which can cause bruising on the skin or gums, or gastrointestinal ulceration and bleeding, which causes black stool.
The cost of treating tick-borne illnesses in dogs
So how much does treating tick-borne illness cost? For simplicity, I’m going to break it down into an arbitrary, three-stage list ranging in severity.
|Sickness Level||Basic Symptoms||Rough Cost of Care*||Types of Care|
|Mildly affected||Pain, fever, limping||$200-300||Initial exam, blood work, antibiotics|
|More significantly affected||Markedly painful, loss of appetite, may not be walking||$1,000-2,000||Exam, blood work, hospitalization for IV fluids and injectable medication, antibiotics (if dog is responding to hospitalization)|
|Severely affected||Kidney failure or other significant health issues||$2,000-3,000 (for short term care)||Short-term care includes an exam, blood work, hospitalization, and treatment for conditions like acute kidney failure. Those animals will require more frequent blood work rechecks. For long-term care, depending on how a dog responds to treatment, you could spend a significant amount more.|
*Prices depend on individual hospitals, geographic location, type of practice (emergency vs. GP). These are generalizations and not meant to be a mold for every animal. Treatment decisions and plans depend on the individual animal and your veterinarian’s recommendations.
A note about severely affected dogs: Typically, when a dog has kidney failure from Lyme disease, the long-term prognosis is very poor to grave. For dogs that aren’t immediately euthanized and go home to try treatment, various medications and a kidney-friendly diet may prolong and promote kidney function for as long as possible. In the end, despite even the most aggressive treatment, most animals are euthanized.
Andrew Spellman is an award-winning photojournalist and author, as well as the editor or ProjectUpland.com and managing editor of both Project Upland and Hunting Dog Confidential Magazines. A 2017 graduate of West Virginia University's Reed College of Media, Andrew's work has appeared in multiple newspapers and magazines. He is also an avid hunter and angler who enjoys chasing varying game in his pocket of Appalachia.