Finding a tick embedded in your dog's skin can be disturbing. Not only do these parasitic arachnids cause itching and soreness, but they also carry diseases—some of which are life-threatening. Removing a tick can be tricky, but it must be done, and you need to know how to assess your dog's health after a tick bite. Learn the proper way to tackle ticks and prevent them from biting your dog in the first place.
What Is a Tick?
A tick is a parasitic member of the spider family. There are seven species of ticks in the United States, and all of them carry diseases. Ticks will bite the flesh of warm-blooded animals, your dog included, and stay attached until they are engorged with blood from their host. Besides the obvious “ick” factor, ticks can cause localized infection as well as diseases like ehrlichiosis, Lyme, and a rare but serious condition in dogs called tick paralysis. The chance of disease transmission grows the longer a tick is embedded. As a dog owner, it's important to know the basics of tick removal and prevention and educate yourself on the risks of disease.
Symptoms of Ticks in Dogs
Most ticks can be detected by simply running your hand through your dog's fur. Ticks often attach themselves in crevices or on areas with little to no hair. Look and feel for signs of ticks.
Dogs itch when bitten by ticks, so they scratch the affected area, and this may be the first indication that your dog has a tick. As you're looking and feeling for ticks, pay special attention to the warm area around the face, ears, neck, armpits, 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 infection will ensue. However, because tick-borne diseases can be life-threatening, ticks should be taken seriously. Most tick-borne diseases require a tick to feed for several hours to transmit the 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.
Some symptoms of certain tick-borne diseases can take days, weeks, or even months to appear.
Causes of Ticks
Ticks are opportunistic parasites. They are attracted to warmth and motion, which signal the presence of a warm-blooded host. To encounter a tick and potentially get bitten, a dog will likely do one of the following:
- Wander into tall grass, wooded areas, or shrubs where ticks wait for prospective hosts (this is called "questing")
- Frequent areas where deer or other wildlife spend a lot of time
- Roam freely outdoors during the warm months of the year
Diagnosing Ticks in Dogs
If you notice a red bump, weeping sore, or bullseye-shaped rash where a tick was embedded in your dog, you should visit your vet for an exam and diagnostic testing. Your vet may perform a blood panel and a specific test called the 4dx to detect the presence of antibodies that indicate the presence of Lyme, ehrlichiosis, or other bacteria tick-borne diseases. A physical examination may reveal other telling signs such as fever, enlarged lymph nodes, and joint swelling. Further testing may be performed to check for kidney damage, a serious complication of systemic infection.
Tick treatment begins with removal of the parasite. A pet owner can safely remove a tick without the help of a veterinarian as long as they follow the proper procedures for tick extraction.
If your dog spikes a fever, acts lethargic, or experiences any sign of lameness, a vet may administer antibiotics for several weeks. If Lyme disease is detected, starting early, antibiotics should help your dog feel better in two to five days; however, the dog will need to remain on the antibiotics for several weeks to fully clear the infection. Dogs who suffer from the complication of kidney damage due to untreated Lyme disease need further management that may include hospitalization, nutritional support, and IV fluids.
For tick paralysis, simply removing the ticks will usually resolve the symptoms within 24 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.
Prognosis for Dogs with Ticks
The prognosis for a tick-bitten dog depends on several factors, including the number of tick bites, the length of time a tick was embedded, the potential diseases transmitted by the tick, and the promptness of treatment. Most tick bites will heal with little more than a few days of itchiness. More serious conditions arise when disease is involved because tick-borne illnesses can be fatal if left untreated.
How to Prevent Tick Bites
If you live in a region where ticks are prevalent, check your dog every time you come in from the outdoors, especially after romps through wooded areas. There are also several different types of oral and topical preventative medications that help prevent ticks from biting a dog. Ask your veterinarian to recommend a tick preventative that will work best for your dog.