The tick population in Ontario has been on the rise over the last few years and with that increase comes a greater chance to find a tick on your pet. Finding a tick is no reason for immediate alarm and there are several facts that you should know.
Ticks are members of the arachnid family (with spiders). When they are adults they have four pairs of legs. Ticks have three stages of life: egg, nymph, and adult. The nymph and the adult stages are those that require a blood meal to feed. A tick can live for up to 2 years without a blood meal.
As many know, ticks can be found on tall grasses and weeds, but they are also found on dry leaves and low brush. The tick will climb to the edge of whatever vegetation it is on and reach its legs out to grab onto whomever or whatever passes by (a host). They attach and feed on blood until they are full, then detach and drop off to look for a place to lay their eggs. These eggs can take up to 2 years to become adults.
When dogs and cats are the host the tick is most often found on the face, ears, and between the toes, although they really can be found anywhere they decide to attach. A tick’s saliva has a chemical in it that allows the tick to bite without the animal feeling it. When it bites, the head is buried in the skin while the body and legs remain outside. This buried head makes it difficult to remove a tick in its entirety and well-meaning people often remove the body while the head remains attached to the host.
Lyme disease is a disease caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. The bacteria can be transmitted while the tick feeds on the host. Only one tick species in Ontario can transmit Lyme disease, the Ixodes scapularis tick. The most recent studies show that 85% of Ixodes are NOT infected (although there is a higher percentage in Ixodes ticks in areas endemic to Lyme disease). There is a negligible risk of infection if the tick is removed within 24 hours of infection, a questionable risk of infection if removed within 24-48 hours, and a significant risk of infection if attached for greater than 48 hours. **Remember** the tick has to be Ixodes and it has to be infected with the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Also, our pet’s immune system will help protect against Lyme disease if it encounters the infection. So, after all of this, 95% of dogs exposed to an infected Ixodes tick for the specific period of time will NOT get sick. The clinical signs of Lyme disease include fever and lethargy, as well as lameness and skin rash.
There are several ways to decrease the risk of your pet becoming a host for a tick: avoid the areas you may find a tick (tall grass, piles of leaves, plant brush) and check your pet for ticks after coming in from a walk. As it can be easy to miss a tick on a very hairy animal or to avoid long, beautiful walks in the ravine or at the cottage, there is another way of preventing ticks, and that is by administration of a veterinary-prescribed tick preventive medication.
There are several tick preventives that can be dispensed by your veterinarian, the main differences being: administration method, length of action, age of your pet, and what other parasites are targeted as well. Depending on your needs, your veterinarian can help with your choice of medication.