Know Your Enemy: Facts About Ticks
The number of reported cases of tick-borne diseases is rising in the U.S., according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research shows a large uptick from a total of 48,610 reported cases in 2016 to a total of 59,349 reported cases in 2017.
Those figures should put pet parents on high alert, says Dr. Jim D. Carlson, a holistic veterinarian and owner of Riverside Animal Clinic and Holistic Center in Chicago's northwest suburbs.
“Ticks carry Lyme disease, ehrlichia, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever—to name a few serious illnesses—which are zoonotic, meaning a human can catch these diseases,” he says. “Because ticks feed on blood, they can transfer viruses and bacteria among animals and humans.”
When protecting yourself and your pets from ticks, it’s best to know your enemy so you can prepare and prevent these disease-spreading parasites from impacting your life.
Here are some important facts about ticks to keep you and your pet safe.
What is the tick life cycle?
“Ticks have a four-stage life cycle,” says Carlson, “which includes the egg, larva, nymph and adult stages.”
All three of the later stages require a blood meal to progress to the next phase of their life. However, the larva and nymph stages are more likely to feed on rodents and other small animals, and are not commonly found on pets.
“Ticks range in size depending on their life stage and type,” says Carlson. “Nymphs can be so small they look like a freckle on a human or just a tiny dot of dirt on your pet's face.”
When ticks reach the adult stage, they prefer larger hosts. It is these adult ticks that are generally found on humans and pets.
Depending on a tick’s life stage, feeding normally lasts from 10 minutes to 2 hours, according to the CDC.
Where do ticks come from?
Ticks are commonly found in areas where wildlife is prevalent, along grassy and wooded locations, says Carlson, who adds that certain types of ticks are more prevalent in some regions of the country.
“Most tick populations are east of the Rocky Mountains, but California also has a noted tick population,” adds Carlson. “The deer tick is a very important tick to be concerned with, as it is the carrier of Lyme disease, the devastating illness causing fever, chills, headaches (and)muscle and joint aches in humans and pets.”
While there are many kinds of ticks found across the United States, a few examples of prevalent ticks species and where they are found include:
- The deer tick is most often found in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, and upper Midwest, with pockets of them in California and the West Coast.
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever, transmitted by the American dog tick, primarily occurs in Arkansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee, according to the CDC.
- While the Asian Longhorned Tick had not previously inhabited the Western Hemisphere the CDC reports, as of 2019, longhorned ticks have been discovered in Arkansas, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
How do ticks get on your pet?
Ticks get on you, says Carlson, by performing an act known as “questing.” “The tick climbs up on a blade of grass or tree limb and waits for the host to come by,” he says. “Ticks detect their hosts by movement and smell through special sensory organs on their bodies.”
When contact is made, the tick simply crawls onto its unsuspecting host. This behavior helps explain why forays into deep brush, grass and wooded areas can result in an elevated number of tick encounters.
It's best to avoid taking your pet into these areas during prime tick season, but if exposure is unavoidable, make sure your pet continues their flea & tick preventative on schedule.
In the home, a tick can transfer from pet to pet—or from pet to human—easily. If they are not embedded and feeding, a pet can shake off a tick and that tick can “quest” to find a new host—another pet or a human.
Can ticks jump?
Unlike fleas, ticks cannot jump. If a tick is found high up on your body or your pet’s body, it climbed there from the ground or from another host.
To debunk a similar myth: Ticks also cannot fly, since they do not have wings.
What risks do ticks present?
Ticks can spread a variety of diseases to pets and humans. In the United States, common tick-borne diseases that affect pets include:
- Lyme disease
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever
These diseases present symptoms ranging from fever, rashes and fatigue to stiffness, aching and lameness. Weight loss, diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite and neurological problems may also occur if your pet is infected by a disease-carrying tick.
Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne threat in the U.S. Every year, the CDC tracks approximately 30,000 cases of reported Lyme disease in humans. However, that number is less than the actual number of Lyme disease infections that occur because only a fraction of illnesses are reported.
“Unfortunately, ticks can be a threat year-round,” says Carlson. “If the temperature is above freezing, ticks can be active in any climate.”
To best protect you and your pet from ticks and the diseases carried by them, consult your veterinarian for recommended vaccinations and ongoing preventives to keep your pet on year-round.
How to prevent ticks on your pet
Since you cannot successfully keep ticks away from your pet at all times, it is imperative to keep your pet on a tick preventive medication. To further protect your pet, most tick prevention methods also protect your pet from fleas. While the form of prevention you take for your pet may depend on preference and lifestyle, it is recommended that you consult with your veterinarian on their opinion.
In addition to prescription flea & tick prevention methods, there are over the coupresnter pest prevention options that include:
- Topical treatments that are applied to your pet’s skin
- Oral treatments that can be given to your pet as a pill or a chewable tablet
- Collars that can be placed alongside your pet’s normal collar and I.D. tag
An ongoing preventive plan is not only the best way to protect your pet’s health, it is also an essential method to ensure your home does not become shared through a pest infestation.
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How to remove a tick
You must take precautions and follow safety protocols when removing a tick from yourself or a pet.
By taking precautions and knowing how ticks travel, you and your pet can continue to experience the great outdoors together.