I hate ticks. I don’t find them disgusting; I have no problem removing them. I just hate that every year, tick populations are worse in endemic areas, spreading to more areas of the country, and carrying more diseases.
Ticks are extremely difficult to control and prevent, even with the most effective products. The diseases they carry are insidious to diagnose and treat.
Ticks SUCK! Literally.
There is too much information on this topic for the space of this article, so here is what I want to accomplish:
- Briefly describe “tick-borne diseases.”
- Get to the heart of tick prevention.
- Enter the quagmire of the efficacy and safety of these products. (Yowza!)
- Lyme disease (the most common)
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever (and it ain’t only in the Rockies)
Symptoms can vary, but a dog with tick-borne disease is typically lethargic, may be running a fever, has aches and pains, a limp, swollen joints, swollen lymph nodes, all of the above, and more.
There are many other dangers of tick diseases, including changes in the blood (decreased white blood cells, decreased platelets) and kidney disease (lyme nephritis). Additional blood tests, ultrasound and biopsies may be needed.
Definitive diagnosis can be difficult. Severely decreased platelets, brain and ocular involvement, and kidney disease can be life-threatening. These symptoms are uncommon, thankfully.
Nix the Ticks
If you find a tick on your dog, get rid of it! Be as vigilant as you can.
You don’t need anything more “high-tech” than your fingers and a tissue, but use tweezers or hemostats if you prefer.
Most veterinarians have an in-house test for heartworm, Lyme, ehrlichia and anaplasmosis that takes just a few minutes to run, during your exam, with a few drops of blood. It’s called the 4DX SNAP test. A positive on this test, however, does not mean your pet has active disease. In fact, most of the dogs I test that come up positive have no symptoms.
This test tells you if your dog was bitten by a tick carrying one of the organisms. It does not tell you if your pet acquired actual disease from the tick. So what do you do? Most experts do not recommend treating a perfectly healthy, asymptomatic dog that comes up positive on the 4DX test.
Additional tests can be sent out to a lab to help make a more accurate diagnosis if tick-borne disease is suspected. The results take several days, and the tests are a bit expensive. Experts argue about the reliability of some of the additional testing. Usually, when labs are still developing and introducing new and different tests for a disease, it means the definitive test has not yet been found.
Fortunately, if a pet has clinical tick-borne disease, they usually respond quickly to doxycycline, a common antibiotic. I put most of these feverish, painful dogs on “doxy” and a pain reliever/anti-inflammatory. The majority of them are showing improvement in 24 hours or less.
If the dog is showing NO symptoms, evidence-based medicine suggests not to treat with antibiotics. In my area, in the Northeast, many dogs would be on antibiotics for their entire lives if we treated based on a positive 4DX test alone.
There is a Lyme vaccine available, and many experts suggest it be used in endemic areas. The negatives of the vaccine are that it is not 100% protective, it protects for only a short time, probably less than a year, and it is an additional vaccine with the associated risks of any vaccination.
Ticks are devious, tenacious little critters! They are harder to prevent than fleas. There are topicals like Advantix and Frontline Plus, and collars such as Preventic and Scalibor. Even if you believe in these products and use them according to the label, you may still find some ticks on your dog.
You say: “This stuff doesn’t work, Doc. And it’s expensive!”
Well, honestly, “this stuff” DOES work. But nothing is 100% effective against ticks. Say you live in a heavily infested area, you’re using one of these products, and you find two ticks on your dog. Without the product, I guarantee you probably would have found 20 ticks. And with your use of the topicals, those two ticks should not have attached yet, lessening the possibility of transmitting disease.
‘But Those Chemicals Are Horrible, Doc!’
If you want to treat your pet totally naturopathically, you will probably not use these products. But your dog will get more ticks. And you are putting your dog at greater risk for developing Lyme or other tick-borne diseases. It’s the plain and simple truth. This is not my opinion. This is a medically proven fact.
If you use citronella, NEEM, feed garlic, and so on, you may deter some ticks, but these products are not very effective. If you are having good luck with a natural preventive, that’s great. If not, consider moving to northern Canada.
I occasionally hear people claim that veterinarians recommend these products only to make a profit, which is an ignorant and ill-informed myth. The products are available over-the-counter now, and some of the major online pharmacies and similar companies have had these products (through corrupt and illicit practices) for a long time.
Vets are not counting on these products as profit-makers. Recommending them actually loses money for veterinarians, in a sick sort of way.
It’s much more lucrative for the vet to have pets sick from fleas or ticks and treat them than it is to recommend prevention. But we want to keep your pets healthy, free of parasites and free of the diseases they cause. It’s our job to recommend a flea and tick prevention program based on risks and the pet’s health.
Evidence-Based Truth About Frontline, Advantix, Etc.
Despite what you have read on the internet, there is no evidence to suggest that Frontline (Fipronil) or Advantix (Imidacloprid/permethrins) cause cancer or other serious diseases. These products have been around for decades.
The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center does not consider these products dangerous or toxic if used properly. The Preventic collar is dangerous if ingested and should be used with caution around young children. The product is labeled appropriately.
Your dog may have an allergic reaction to these medications, as is true of any medicine. That is a risk you may not want to take, but most of these reactions are mild and don’t require treatment. In thousands of applications, I have had two dogs develop sores at the application site that needed treatment. These owners let the dog scratch at the application area for a week before seeking help.
A higher percentage of dogs have a transient itching sensation that usually goes away in a few minutes. I believe I have had one dog out of thousands that was neurologically impaired for three weeks after the owner put on a product not purchased from a vet. The dog recovered completely in time.
If you have to use a tick preventive, I feel much better about the current generation of products than I did with the older chemicals we used in the 1980s. The old sprays and dips were toxic. The house sprays were toxic. And they weren’t that effective. The poor animals still had fleas and ticks, horrible itching and Lyme disease. People were forced to spray and bomb their homes, exposing them to lingering insecticides in their environment.
Flea and tick control is much safer and more effective today, for you and your pets.
‘This Stuff Will Kill My Dog!’
I know some of you are out there spouting the evils of these “TOXIC, SCARY, CARCINOGENS,” swearing these products are going to kill your pets. There is no proof of this, and there is evidence that they are safe.
Proving that a product causes cancer requires many years of dedicated research. Frontline and Advantage have now been used on dogs since the ’90s with no rise in cancers or syndromes that we can identify in dogs or in humans. Since these products are used on crops, studies have been done on their safety. Some rats fed massive doses have a higher incidence of thyroid cancer. Making the leap from feeding rats huge amounts to placing a small amount on your dog topically are very different scenarios.
Of course, the FDA’s approval does not mean that we will not learn more about potential toxicity or carcinogenic effects in the future. There is a risk with every medication, every vaccination, every supplement, every topical. What we need to do is a make a decision about risk versus benefit, and go from there.
Make the Decision That Feels Right for You
In non-endemic tick areas, if you can control fleas and ticks without the use of these products, that’s wonderful. Your pet is not at great risk.
If you are in a tick endemic area, no matter how carefully you go over your pet with a fine-tooth comb once or twice a day, you will not find all the ticks on your dog, particularly the tiny deer ticks. When I got Lyme disease, I never found the tick, just the rash. We don’t see the rash on dogs. Since dogs can’t tell you when they feel a tick, or eat the tick, or develop the rash, I suggest trying to prevent ticks as best you can.
My best dog, Bruno, a beautiful 80-pound black and white Border Collie mix, died of kidney failure due to Lyme nephritis. He came to me as a stray and had already contracted the disease. Lyme nephritis is not the typical course for most Lyme-positive dogs; it is uncommon. He was unlucky. He responded to treatment somewhat, but irreversible damage had already been done to his kidneys.
Bruno was very special, the human kind of canine. He was brilliant. He liked to stare at me. That’s how he would know what I was thinking. Bruno knew when I was so tired it would only be a short walk that night. He knew when we were driving to the lake for a great stick-throwing marathon.
And when he could no longer run into the lake water, watching sadly as the stick made ripples at a distance he could no longer swim, he told me it was time to leave this earth. I told him I was sorry I wasn’t around earlier in his life… to protect him from dying of Lyme disease.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian.