Ah, spring. That time of the year when flowers start to bloom, sleepy bears begin to wake up from hibernation…and all of the creeping, crawling, and flying pests stir from their winter naps. Although ectoparasite control is important at all times of the year, it becomes especially vital as the weather becomes warmer. Ticks are one of the more clinically relevant external parasites of dogs and cats.
There are three major species of ticks in New Jersey: the black legged tick (Ixodes scapularis), the American dog tick (Dermacenter variabilis), and the Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum). All of these ticks can spread disease to our pets.
Generally, ticks go through three main life stages after hatching: larva, nymph, and adult.
Most common types of ticks are three host ticks, meaning that each life stage feeds on a separate host, and then falls off to molt into the next life stage. Adult ticks tend to breed in the fall. Males die before winter, but females live through the colder season. In the spring, females feed on a host, then fall off, lay eggs, and die. Depending on the species, each female can produce hundreds to thousands of eggs. The eggs hatch into larva, which grow and molt into nymphs in the summer. Nymphs will be inactive in the winter, and then feed and molt into adults the following spring. Typically, a tick life cycle takes about two years to complete.
Tick life cycle
For most of the species in New Jersey, each tick life stage feeds on a different type of animal. For instance, the black legged tick’s larval and nymphal stages feed on mice and other rodents. Adult black legged ticks mainly feed on white tailed deer, but sometimes bite humans, dogs, and other large mammals. For practical purposes, this means that rodent and deer populations play a large role in controlling the spread of tick borne diseases.
If rodent populations increase dramatically, there could be a higher risk of contracting certain tick-borne diseases.
So what types of diseases are spread by ticks?
In New Jersey, the most common tick-borne disease is Lyme disease. In dogs, this can cause fever, lethargy, shifting leg lameness, and enlarged lymph nodes. In certain dogs, it can also lead to potentially fatal kidney failure.
Other tick-borne diseases that can be found in the Northeast include anaplasmosis, baesiosis, Ehrlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Symptoms vary depending on the disease, but often include fever, weakness, low platelets (which can cause bleeding), and enlarged lymph nodes. Signs often do not occur until months after a tick bite, so a pet can still have a tick-borne disease even if there are no ticks currently on him.
Additionally, while humans are susceptible to many of these illnesses as well, the diseases cannot be transmitted directly from a dog or cat to a human. And since ticks typically do not feed more than once in a life stage, ticks that fall off of a dog or cat typically will not bite humans in the household. However, the presence of tick-borne diseases in dogs or cats in an area can indicate an increased risk for humans getting sick from tick bites as well.
If you have any concern that your pet may have a tick-borne disease, go to a veterinarian. Most of these diseases are treatable with antibiotics, but can cause serious illness or even death if untreated. However, prevention of these diseases is even better than treating them once they occur. There are many different ectoparasite prevention products on the market.
Some target ticks specifically, while others cover both fleas and ticks. There are topical products, as well as oral options. Some last as long as three months, while others need to be administered monthly. Prescription products tend to be the most reliable, so it best to get a tick control product (or a prescription for one) directly from a veterinarian. Remember to only use a product prescribed for one pet on that specific pet! Using a product on the wrong size animal could be dangerous or ineffective, and using products meant for dogs on cats can be fatal. When used correctly, most flea and tick products are safe, easy to use, and help prevent dangerous illnesses. Your veterinarian can help suggest a product that is best for your pet. Ideally, this product should be used year round. Ticks can become active in the winter if a period of warmer weather occurs, and many parasites are present year round in sheltered areas.
Another part of tick-borne disease prevention is vaccination. There is an available vaccine for Lyme disease, which can significantly decrease your pet’s risk of obtaining this illness. Ticks are present even in suburban areas, so even house pets are in danger of getting Lyme disease. If your dog spends any amount of time outside, vaccinating for Lyme disease deserves serious consideration.
Even if you are following all of these recommendations, it is still possible to find the occasional tick on a pet. What should you do if this happens? First of all, realize that removing the tick promptly is important.
Many tick-borne diseases are only transmitted if the tick remains attached for several hours, so quickly removing the tick can decrease the risk of disease transmission. Use a pair of tweezers, or your fingers, to grasp the tick as close to your pet’s skin as possible. Then pull upwards with steady, even pressure. Do not twist or jerk, as this may make it more likely for the tick’s mouthparts to be left in the skin. Another option is to use a designated tick removal product, such as “Tick Off.” After removing the tick, wash the affected area, as well as your hands, with soap and water.
After being outdoors do a thorough check for ticks. Properly remove it as soon as possible.
However, with appropriate precautions, hopefully you’ll be washing your hands of ticks completely this year!
Blagburn, B. (2013). Managing Fleas, Ticks, and Vectorborne Diseases in a Practice Environment. Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference. Retrieved April 20, 2018, from https://www.vin.com/doc/?id=5961279.
Dryden, M. (2013). Biology and Ecology of Ticks Parasitizing Dogs and Cats. Central Veterinary Conference. Retrieved April 20, 2018, from https://www.vin.com/doc/?id=6646091.
Lundgren, B. (2006, May 29). Ticks: Arthropod Parasites. Retrieved April 20, 2018, from https://www.vin.com/doc/?id=4952474&pid=19239.
New Jersey Department of Health. (2017). Tick Borne Diseases [Brochure]. Trenton, NJ.