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 preventive product, so surely I don’t need to worry about checking every day, right?”
Well done for using a preventive, 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.
How Ticks Feed
Before removing the tick, it helps to understand what you’re up against.
Ticks are smart enough to recognize their hosts. They find their hosts “by detecting animals’ breath and body odors, or by sensing body heat, moisture and vibrations. Some species can even recognize a shadow,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“In addition, ticks pick a place to wait by identifying well-used paths. Then they wait for a host, resting on the tips of grasses and shrubs. Ticks can’t fly or jump, but many tick species wait in a position known as ‘questing,’” the CDC adds.
Ticks feed on blood. To access your pet’s bloodstream, ticks 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.
If you distress the tick during removal, 1 of 2 unfortunate things can happen:
- The mouthparts get left in the skin.
- Or 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 myths 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
The only thing any of those techniques above do is distress the tick — with potentially serious consequences.
How to Remove a Tick From a Dog — The Right Way
Instructions for safely removing a tick from a dog:
- Use a pair of fine-toothed tweezers or a tick-removing hook (check the tool’s instructions for effective removal).
- If necessary, wet the dog’s fur so that you can see the tick more clearly.
- Wear latex gloves — some of the infections caused by ticks are transmissible to people, and you could become infected via a skin scratch.
- If you’re using tweezers, grasp the tick exactly where it meets the skin. Do not grasp the body directly — this could 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. The granuloma may need to be with antibiotics or even be surgically removed.
Don’t take chances with ticks. Use a preventive but also check your pet daily, and keep tweezers or a tick hook handy to deal with these pesky critters straight away.
Where Ticks Hide Outdoors
Ticks hide in several outdoor places. Almost anyone who lives in a semi-rural to rural environment knows that ticks hang out in wooded areas and tall grass. But there are more places to consider:
- Leaf piles: Those tempting piles of leaves may contain ticks — so don’t go jumping into them.
- Wildlife: Many species of animal can host ticks, such as mammals, reptiles, birds and even amphibians.
- Stone walls: Ticks thrive on the moisture usually present in a stone wall, as well as on the rodents that tunnel through the gaps.
- Outdoor feeding stations: If you feed and/or water your pet outdoors, ticks will likely take up residence.
- Ground-cover plants: Plants like ivy and myrtle provide a haven for mice and rats, so ticks will hang out here as well.
- Picnic tables and wooden benches: Nowhere is safe. Mice will likely seek out food remnants, bringing ticks along for the ride.
- Lawns: Is your lawn getting a little shaggy? Ticks will hide in neglected lawns — the longer the grass, the more likely that ticks will be there.
You can’t not go outside, but you can do regular tick checks on yourself and your pets to ensure that any tick that jumps on you doesn’t have a chance to latch on.
Where Ticks Hide on You
Ticks are attracted to humans, too.
Sara Chodosh of Popular Science has a great explanation:
“With every exhalation, you release carbon dioxide into the air — and, boy, does that sweet CO2 get ticks going. Some of them will literally run towards the scent of a potential host. And yeah, ticks can’t run very fast on a human scale, but the mental image of a little arthropod racing towards you on its clicking-clattering legs is still somehow upsetting. They can also pick up other scents like ammonia, so peeing in the woods only makes things worse. As soon as they smell you, they’re comin’ for you.”
Once the tick lands on you or your pet, it will immediately start moving to try to find skin. Ticks do (unfortunately) prefer moist and humid places, so, if given the option, a tick will attach itself to these places:
- Belly rolls
On your pets, ticks prefer the head area because the skin is thinner here, allowing easier access to the blood supply below, which is why you may find ticks on your pets’ ears and head areas.
But ticks will attach anywhere, which is why it’s important to do a thorough check after coming indoors.
Check your clothing; remove it, if possible, to check the insides, outsides and backs. Examine yourself as closely as possible to ensure you haven’t picked up any ticks. This includes your backside, front and hair.
If you do find a tick, use tweezers to remove it as closely to the skin as possible, following the same tick removal instructions above.