Ticks . . . Ick
Asian longhorned ticks are the new kids on the American block, first seen in the U.S. in 2017 and they are spreading. Photo courtesy of CDC.
When I was a kid, we’d go on long horseback rides that meandered through shaded woods. We were always instructed by our parents to wear hats to keep ticks from getting in our hair. Of course, the little rascals would end up on us anyway, but we’d just pull them off and go on with our lives.
As an adult “in this day and age” (boy, it makes me feel ancient to say that), things have changed. For one, I now know that ticks don’t hang around in trees waiting to drop on our heads—they actually crawl from the ground up onto stalks of grass or weeds and hang upside down waving their little feet in the air, waiting for a living being to come by so they can grab on. They then climb until safely and happily ensconced in the hair of man or beast, or at least until their upward progress is stopped by an elastic band in our clothing. Then . . . chomp.
The other thing that’s changed is that it’s not “just a tick” any more. These nasty beasts carry diseases, and the number and severity of the diseases they can transmit has expanded noticeably during my lifetime. When I was a teen, we heard about some vague something called “Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever” and assumed it was something you could only get in the Rocky Mountains. My, how times have changed.
The number of tick species that veterinarians and physicians see has increased as well. The American dog tick was about the only thing going in West Virginia when I was growing up. Now there are kinds of ticks that can give diseases to people and pets. While ticks will attach to you when the time is right for them, our closer-to-the-ground pets make for an easier hop on, hop off bus, even though there’s very little hopping off.
There are a bunch of scary diseases that are spread to people by many types of ticks. Some of these ticks give these same diseases to our pets.
- American dog tick: Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia
- Blacklegged/Deer tick: Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, Powassan virus
- Brown dog tick: Rocky Mountain spotted fever
- Gulf Coast tick: Rickettsiosis
- Ixodes scapularis ticks: Babesiosis, Lyme disease
- Lone Star tick: Ehrlichiosis, Heartland virus, tularemia, STARI
- Rocky Mountain wood tick: Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Colorado tick fever, tularemia
- Western blacklegged tick: Lyme disease, anaplasmosis
There are other types of ticks around the world; the CDC list above is for the United States. In Canada, there are 40 recognized species of ticks; here’s a map of tick findings. Lest you think this is a North American phenomenon, however, in the Middle East there are a couple of nasty varieties of hemorrhagic fever carried by camel ticks.
Did I mention that there’s a new kid in town?
Indeed, just arriving in the U.S. in 2017 is the longhorned tick. That sounds like something straight out of Texas, but in fact it was originally seen in eastern Asia (especially China, Korea and Japan), and is also found in Australia and New Zealand. This nasty guy was definitively identified here in West Virginia in May 2018. The tiny and difficult to detect parasite showed up in Arkansas in June 2018 and New York in August, so appears to be quite the mover and shaker. The CDC says that as of March 25, 2019, longhorned ticks have been found in Arkansas, Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. This nasty little specimen can exsanguinate a cow: it’s like thousands of tiny vampires draining its blood! They can make animals seriously ill. Plus, the female longhorned ticks can lay eggs and reproduce without mating, which you may need to know to win a trivia quiz.
Because your pets can get many diseases from ticks, it’s important to prevent tick infestation in the first place for both of your sakes. You don’t need to care which kind, just do what you can to keep any of these critters off you and your pets.
Maybe this is just me, but the last 2 or 3 years I’ve gotten one tick bite . . . and it has continued to itch on and off for WEEKS. I have no idea if the ticks are different, or if that’s just my immune system responding to the bite differently than it did in the past. But I wonder if that happens to our pets too? Ick. Not only is tick control incredibly important for disease prevention, but this business of having it seem to go away, then to wake up digging at the bite site again and again . . . no thanks! I’m going to make my best effort to keep those bugs off my pets and myself to begin with.
Like a lot of other pet products, there are many options for tick prevention. Some of them work really well, others not so much. I’ve found that as a general rule, the cheaper the product, the less effective it is. You do get what you pay for in this case! No product will keep ticks from getting on your pet in the first place—all Fido and Fluffy have to do is walk through some tall grass and come out with little passengers hanging onto their fur—but you want something that’s going to kill these parasites as quickly as possible to reduce the chance for a disease moving from the engorged tick to you or your pet. For yourself, even if you use a chemical repellent, wear light-colored protective clothing and tuck your pant legs into socks.
When coming in from outdoors, pets should be checked to make sure they’re not carrying freeloading arthropods. It’s easier to see them on light-colored fur; running a brush or comb through the coat can also dislodge unwanted guests before they dive down into the fur and attach to the skin. And ditto to you: check your head and clothing.
Be prepared with a tick remover tool; what works best is whatever makes the most sense to you on how to hold it. It's easier for most people to remove one with a tool, which is likely less irritating to some dogs and cats. There’s less yuck factor. Don’t worry if you don’t get all of the tick or that part of the leftover tick might migrate to your brain and find a new home there, which is a silly yet pervasive urban legend and does not happen. This foolishness is so pervasive that I’m going to repeat it: if you leave part of the tick in your pet or yourself, it is not going to get into your bloodstream and dog paddle to your brain and kill you.
Last bit of info, just so you know: It is not unusual for infected dogs to have more than one tick-borne infection. These infections may interact to make each other more severe, so you have a much sicker dog on your hands.
Sadly, these days we need to remember that preventing and picking off ticks isn’t an option, but something you need to do to take care of your pets.
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.