Tick Bites on Dogs

Removal and Dangers

Dog and a tick
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Finding a tick on your dog can leave you feeling disgusted and worried. Maybe the thought turns your stomach. Or maybe you're concerned about the risks ticks pose to both your pet and your family. But one thing's for sure—ticks are an indisputably a dreaded enemy.

What Is a Tick Bite?

Besides the obvious “icky” factor, a tick bite can transmit diseases, cause anemia or infection, and can even cause a rare but serious condition in dogs called "tick paralysis." As a dog owner, know the basics of tick removal and prevention and educate yourself on the risks of disease. With proper knowledge, you can both protect your dog from the threat of ticks and know how to handle a bite should your dog receive one.

Symptoms of Tick Bites on Dogs

Most tick bites can be detected by simply running your hand through your dog's fur, noting any lumps or bumps on the surface. Ticks often attach themselves in crevices or on areas with little to no hair. Pay special attention to the soft, warm area around the face, ears, and neck, and also check the limbs, particularly in the arm pit region and groin. On light colored dogs, it can be easy to spot a brown or black bump protruding from the skin. This may be a feasting tick. On darker colored dogs, however, it may be necessary to inspect them further for attached ticks or any scabs or wounds left behind by the dining culprit. However, if a tick has recently attached, it may not be very big; even on light colored dogs, small ticks can sometimes be hard to find.

Not all ticks transmit disease and just because a tick has been found on your dog doesn't necessarily mean he's infected with something. However, because tick-borne diseases can be life-threatening, the threat of a bite should be taken seriously. Most tick-borne diseases, however, require a tick to feed for several hours in order to transmit infection to a host, so the sooner a tick is located and carefully removed, the lower the risk of disease transmission. The most common symptoms of many tick-borne diseases in the United States—like Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and tick paralysis—first present with a fever and lethargy. Some diseases can also cause weakness, lameness, joint swelling, or anemia. With tick paralysis, the gradual onset of a clumsy gait that develops into paralysis may occur. These signs typically begin to resolve soon after the ticks are removed.

If you notice signs of illness in conjunction with a tick bite in your dog, contact your veterinarian as soon as possible so that proper testing and necessary treatment can begin. And do note that symptoms of certain tick-borne diseases can take days, weeks, or even months to appear.

Causes of Tick Bites

Ticks are parasitic arthropods that feed on the blood of their hosts. Attracted to warmth and motion, they seek out mammals—including people, dogs, and cats—to attach to and bite. Most species of ticks go through four life stages: eggs, larvae, nymphs, and adults. And, in order to mature, a tick must feast on blood during all of its growth stages. Depending on the species, the lifespan of a tick can be several months to years.

The most common tick species in the United States typically reside in tall grass, wooded areas, or shrubs and wait for prospective hosts (this is called "questing"). When a host passes by, the tick climbs aboard and attaches its mouthparts to the skin, beginning its meal of blood. The tick may continue to feed for several hours to days, and will not detach until its meal is complete.

Treatment

To remove a tick from your dog, first locate a clean pair of blunt-nosed tweezers. Next, pull the hair away from the surrounding bite region and place the tweezers as close to the dog's skin as possible, carefully clamping down on the tick. Pull straight out (no twisting) with gentle pressure until you feel the tick loosen its grip and you can pull it away from the skin. Try not to grip the tick too tight so that you puncture its body, potentially releasing blood and pathogens. And never try to burn it away with a lighted match, as doing so may cause the tick to release more saliva (and toxins) into your pet. Once the tick is removed, place it in a sealed plastic bag or a jar of alcohol and call your vet for inspection and identification. Finally, clean the wound with alcohol and place a small amount of topical antibiotic on the wound.

Upon tick inspection, your veterinarian may recommend blood testing to look for tick-borne disease. If your dog spikes a fever, acts lethargic, or experiences any sign of lameness, a vet may administer antibiotics for several weeks. In cases with acute onset of Lyme disease, the start of a course of antibiotics should help your dog feel clinically better in two to five days, however the dog will likely need to remain on the antibiodies for several weeks to fully clear the infection. Dogs who suffer from the complication of kidney damage due to Lyme disease need further management that may include hospitalization, nutritional support, and IV fluids. In this case, a full recovery depends on the severity of the damage.

For tick paralysis, simply removing the ticks will usually resolve the symptoms in a matter of hours, as the neurotoxins in a tick's saliva are the underlying cause. In a few cases, supplemental oxygen may be supplied to dogs who are showing difficulty breathing. Once the effects of the toxins subside, the dog should show a complete recovery.

How to Prevent Tick Bites

If you live in a region where ticks are found, check your dog every time you come in from the outdoors, especially after romps through wooded areas. There are also several different types of monthly preventative medications for dogs that prevent tick bites. Ask your veterinarian to recommend a tick preventative that will work best for your breed and age of dog.

illustration of things to know about dogs and ticks
Illustration: Theresa Chiechi. © The Spruce, 2018
If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.