Ticks look icky and carry disease, so how do they benefit the world?
If we’re being generous, they are food for birds and reptiles, control populations of larger mammals and host organisms such as protozoa and viruses. What’s not in dispute is that ticks on pets are a big no-no and should be removed immediately. Ticks transmit some pretty unpleasant diseases, such as:
- Anaplasmosis (tick-borne fever): Signs include fever, stiffness and appetite loss.
- Babesiosis: Symptoms include fever and severe anemia.
- Hepatozoonosis: Infection is caused not by the tick feeding but by the dog grooming and eating an attached tick.
- Lyme disease: This causes swollen lymph nodes, sore joints, muscle pain and ultimately kidney damage.
- Rocky mountain fever: The rickettsia bacteria is injected into the pet by the tick and causes blood vessel inflammation, leading to swelling, bleeding and fever.
OK, so we’re agreed a tick on our canine companions or feline friends gives us the shudders. But we can’t always prevent them. Unfortunately, there are many urban myths about the best way to remove these unwanted visitors. Try to take a tick off the wrong way, and you increase your pet’s chance of acquiring disease.
Keeping Your Pet Tick-Free
Top of the list for keeping your pet from tick-borne diseases is a daily tick check of your dog or cat and immediately removing any you find.
“But wait!” I hear you say. “I use a preventative product, so surely I don’t need to worry about checking every day, right?”
Well done for using a preventative, but these reduce the chances of infection — not eliminate them altogether. Most products kill ticks rather than repel them, which means they may still attach and bite. If the stuff does its job, then the tick is dead before it can feed, but some ticks take up to 48 hours to die — which leaves a chance of infection.
So don’t stop using the product, but do start daily tick patrols. Keep in mind that there are issues with using some of these preventatives and cats. Some products (those containing permethrin, amitraz or fipronil) have some repellent activity but don’t rely totally on science, and it’s still best to search for ticks daily.
How Ticks Feed
Before removing the tick, it helps to understand what you’re up against.
Ticks feed on blood, and to access the pet’s bloodstream, they sink 2 hook-like mouthparts through the skin, as if stapling themselves in place. Added to that, they inject a potent chemical soup of anticoagulants and anti-inflammatories to knock out the host’s defense mechanisms.
Once firmly anchored, the tick uses the equivalent of a living drill bit (a “toothed hypostome”) to pierce the skin, invade the capillaries and suck blood.
Incorrect Tick Removal
When removing a tick, you don’t want to upset it so that it vomits its stomach contents into the bloodstream via the hypostome. By distressing the tick during removal, 1 of 2 unfortunate things can happen:
- The mouthparts get left in the skin.
- The tick injects its parasite-laden gut contents into the pet’s bloodstream.
Some of the urban myths for tick removal actually do much more harm than good. These include:
- Smearing the tick with Vaseline to suffocate it
- Burning the tick with a cigarette
- Soaking the tick in rubbing alcohol
- Attaching cotton to the tick and pulling
- Twisting the tick (clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on the myth) to remove
- Picking it off with fingernails
All these antics do is distress the tick — with potentially serious consequences.
How to Remove a Tick
The only safe way to remove a tick is to use a pair of fine-toothed tweezers or a tick-removing hook (check the tool’s instructions for effective removal).
If necessary, wet the fur so that you can see the tick more clearly. Wear latex gloves — some of the infections are transmissible to people, and you could become infected via a skin scratch. If using tweezers, grasp the tick exactly where it meets the skin. Do not grasp the body directly, as this is liable to squeeze it and push toxins into the pet. Pull sharply backward to remove the tick (no twisting involved).
If you grip too high up, you may snap off the mouthparts, leaving them in the skin. These can cause irritation and the development of a tissue lump called a tick granuloma. These may need treatment with antibiotics or even surgical removal.
Don’t take chances with ticks. Use a preventative but also check your pet daily, and keep tweezers or a tick hook handy to deal with these pesky critters straight away.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed June 3, 2016.