There’s no doubt about it, ticks are nasty little buggers. Any creature that attaches itself to your skin and sucks your blood is high on the list of things you want to avoid. Worse yet, ticks present a health risk for both dogs and humans. They can transmit a number of diseases, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, and — in the case of the female wood tick — something called tick paralysis.
As unsavory as they are, ticks are remarkable parasites that can live for years. They wait patiently for a host to pass by, then leap onto it. Within a few hours, the tick attaches itself to the host by burrowing its head into the skin, engorging itself with blood. They can feed for a few hours or a few weeks (go ahead and say it — yuck), then drop off the host to lay thousands of eggs. They are categorized as hard ticks or soft ticks, and each has its own unique way to turn your stomach.
Different ticks have distinct lifestyles that influence when they’re most active. Most present a higher risk during warmer months, but they’re a year-round threat in many places.
Home treatments for ticks
Examine your dog each time you return from a walk in the woods or a field. Ticks like to settle between the toes and around the ears on dogs, although they can latch on just about anywhere.
Ticks may be very small black dots, about the size of the head of a pin; or they can be larger and more easily seen, about half the size of a ladybug. When engorged with blood, the tick’s body swells and it holds firmly to the dog’s skin. Unfortunately, it’s often easiest to find a tick when it’s already latched on: by feeling your dog’s skin, you can find a tiny lump that feels much like a small burr, except you can’t brush or pull it off easily.
If you find a tick that’s unattached, you can remove it with a pair of tweezers. Because the blood of a tick can be dangerous, don’t crush it between your fingers. Also, flushing it down the toilet will not kill it — putting it in rubbing alcohol, then flushing it will do the job. It’s best to wear rubber or surgical gloves when you handle ticks.
If the tick has already burrowed its head into the dog’s skin, use a pair of tweezers and gently grasp the tick by the head, not the body. Pull gently, straight outward (though occasionally vets recommend twisting clockwise). Dip it in rubbing alcohol and flush it down the toilet.
If the head remains in the skin, you may be able to remove it with the tweezers. If not, it will likely come out on its own, but you should check with your vet for advice on whether to try to remove it or simply leave it and watch for signs of infection.
If your dog has had ticks, particularly a severe infestation, you’ll need to thoroughly clean her bedding area. Luckily, ticks — unlike fleas— usually don’t spread beyond the dog or her bed, although they do present an obvious danger to other animals and people in the house.
When it’s time to see a vet
Sometimes tick infestations become severe, with hundreds of ticks on the dog’s body. When this happens, the dog must be treated with an insecticide dip and may require multiple treatments to completely eradicate the ticks. If your dog has a severe infestation, you should go to your vet for help.
Other reasons to see a vet:
- One or more ticks can be seen deep in the ear canal.
- Redness or swelling at the site of the tick bite that lasts beyond two or three days after removal.
- Your dog’s behavior or health changes after a tick bite.
How to prevent ticks
If you use a wide-tooth comb for fleas on your dog after a walk, chances are you’ll discover any ticks in the dog’s coat, and they’ll probably not have attached themselves yet. (To protect yourself, tuck long pants into your socks during walks in woods and fields, and wear a hat.)
Around your house, be sure to keep tall grass mowed to discourage ticks from setting up camp in your yard. Pet-approved insecticides may be used on your lawn to control ticks, but its benefit may be short-lived since some ticks spend part of their lifecycle underground, safely away from any treatment.
There are many treatments available to help keep your dog safe from ticks:
Topical treatments. These products are commonly used and are very effective. You apply a small bottle of solution to the back of the dog (directions vary, as does the dosage based on the dog’s weight). They last for a month or so. Some will also kill fleas, but not all, so read the label carefully. Frontline and Advantage are popular brands. Active ingredients include permethrin, imidacloprid, pyrethrin, or fipronil.
Sprays. A bit more work, sprays require that you cover all areas of the body. Be careful around eyes and ears; it’s best to spray a cotton ball and dab the solution on those areas. How long the sprays remain effective varies, so read the label, and be sure to spray in a well-ventilated area. Active ingredients include pyrethrin or permethrin.
Powders. Easier than sprays but messy, to be sure. Not recommended for dogs that suffer from asthma. Again, read the directions carefully for how to apply and how long the powder remains effective. These contain pyrethrin.
Shampoos and dips. Shampoos and dips may have some residual benefit but are most often used for a dog already infested with ticks. Work up a good lather across the entire body, and leave it on for at least 10 minutes. To protect your dog, place cotton in his ears, and be very careful around the eyes. These contain pyrethrin.
Collars. Tick collars can be effective, but they may not be useful for a dog that likes to swim — they become less effective after getting wet. Read directions carefully to see how long the collar remains active. When fitting the collar, make sure it’s snug but with enough room to get two fingers between it and your pet’s neck. These typically contain carbamates and pyrethroids.
A recent product called Preventic, available as a collar, has proven itself effective in killing ticks on dogs. It contains an ingredient called Amitraz, which kills the tick before it can attach itself. Some dogs have an adverse reaction to the collar, so it’s a good idea to ask your vet about it first and watch your dog carefully when you first use it. Also, the collar isn’t effective at killing fleas.