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Ticks: Opportunistic Bloodsuckers and Vectors for Disease Transmission

Photo of Deer Ticks Male Female One of these Lyme Disease spreading ticks could end up on you or your pet.

This article originally appeared on Dr. Mahaney’s The Daily Vet column on petMD.

Now that you’ve gotten up to speed on the Clinical Signs, Infectious Diseases, and Natural Treatment Options for Fleas, let’s move onto the flea’s fellow blood-sucking proverbial cousin, the tick.

Tick Appropriate Environments and Situational Opportunism

Like fleas, ticks require the right combination of environmental factors to flourish: warmth, moisture, and nourishment.

Urban areas tend to be less densely concentrated with ticks as compared to suburban and rural environments, mostly due to the overall lack of foliage. Long grasses and wooded areas provide safe havens for ticks to reproduce, as well as plentiful animal hosts from which they can acquire their blood based nutrition.

Since moving to the urban jungle of Los Angeles, I rarely see ticks attached to my patients’ bodies, and infrequently attain positive diagnoses for tick borne disease. Most of my patients live a coddled, indoor existence, with most of their outdoor excursions limited to sidewalks and minuscule patches of closely-clipped lawn.

In contrast to fleas, ticks cannot jump; they instead crawl onto their host. This is unlikely to happen as your pet lounges on the carpet inside your house, but a jaunt through a grassy field or the woods permits plenty of opportunity. Ticks lurk on blades of grass or leaves and latch on to animals’ coats as they pass by. Carbon dioxide, warmth, and other chemical attractants exuded by animals and people direct ticks to their next meal.

Tick Disease Transmission

The physical damage caused by the bite of a tick isn’t typically a life threatening concern. Yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health report a variety of potentially fatal diseases originating in ticks, including:

  • Bacteria — Anaplasmosis, Ehrhlichia, Lyme disease (Borrelia burdorferi), Mycoplasma (Haemobartonella), Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF), Tularemia (AKA "Rabbit Fever")
  • Parasite — Babesia (a single celled organism, or protozoa)\
  • Virus — Tick- borne encephalitis virus (TBEV, caused by a Flavivirus)
  • Other — Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI, caused by an unknown agent), Tick Paralysis (caused by a neurotoxin in tick saliva)

The tick pierces the skin with its sharp mouthparts (the chelicerae and pedipalps), allowing for the feeding tube (hypostome) to enter the host. The blood sucking then begins, and the tick can transmit or contract an infectious organism to/from the host. Not every tick bite equates with the transmission of disease causing organisms, but it’s best to aware of the clinical signs and to seek a veterinary examination should they occur.

Clinical Signs of Tick Infestation and Tick Borne Disease

Unlike fleas, you’ll likely not see your pet chewing, licking, and scratching at the site where a tick latches onto his skin. Visual inspection of your pet’s skin by separating tufts of hair and closely feeling all body parts typically permits discovery of a tick. The head, ears, neck, and limbs are common locations, as they tend to touch the grass or leaf where the tick awaits its prey.

Animals having a tick borne disease can show clinical signs including (but not exclusive to):

  • Anorexia (decreased appetite)
  • Hyperthermia (elevated body temperature)
  • Joint and muscle soreness
  • Lethargy or reduced mobility
  • Mucous membrane pallor (pale gums)
  • Tachypnea (elevated respiratory rate)

Besides the direct damage to the joints, nervous system, internal organs (kidneys, etc.), and other body parts, tick borne organisms can potentially trigger immune mediated illnesses. Each time my dog, Cardiff, has an episode of Immune Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA), he undergoes extensive diagnostic testing and is medicated with a lengthy course of oral antibiotic therapy, regardless of his tick panel’s positive or negative result. All of Cardiff’s tests have come up negative, yet there exists the possibility that his body has not yet produced antibodies to a tick borne infectious agent at the time the test was performed. With this uncertainty, I prefer to use antibiotic therapy (sometimes more than one) under the guidance of an internal medicine specialist instead of losing valuable hours to days weeding through the complicated and frustrating diagnostic forest (it’s quite vast).

Common Sense Tick Prevention

Keeping your pet free from ticks requires the right combination of environmental control and prevention. My top recommendation is to not allow your pet to roam free in your yard or go off lead during hikes on the canyon trail or woods. If you prevent your pet from having access to the locations where ticks lurk, then their likelihood of exposure is greatly reduced.

For pets having access to parasite heavy areas, use a veterinary prescribed topical tick (and flea) preventative or an appropriate collar to repel or kill ectoparasites.

Removing a Tick from Your Pet’s Body

Most attached ticks don’t require a trip into your veterinarian’s office for an emergency removal. Yet I do suggest removing a tick upon discovery.

Pet caretakers can completely detach a tick’s mouthparts and head (collectively called the capitulum) from the skin’s surface using a tick removal tool or fine-tipped tweezers (not your ungloved hands). Once the offending arthropod is removed, contact your veterinarian for appropriate wound care instructions.

If you are uncertain that your pet has a tick on its skin, then having a veterinary evaluation is a safe plan. I’ve treated skin trauma associated with an owner accidentally removing a pet’s nipple which was thought to be a blood sucking parasite. Nearly always, there is a humiliated owner attached to these cases. Therefore, I strive to educate them that both male and female dogs (and cats) have nipples on the underside of their bodies that could appear like an imbedded tick.

I hope you and your pet have many non-traumatic outdoor adventures this summer, and stay free from ticks and other parasites.

Photo Credit: NIH Medline Plus Deer Ticks

Please feel free to communicate with me through Twitter (@PatrickMahaney) and follow my adventures in veterinary medicine by liking Patrick Mahaney: Veterinarian Acupuncture Pain Management for Your Pets on Facebook.

Copyright of this article (2012) is owned by Dr Patrick Mahaney, Veterinarian and Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist. Republishing any portion of this article must first be authorized by Dr Patrick Mahaney. Requests for republishing must be approved by Dr Patrick Mahaney and received in written format.

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