More than 850 types of ticks are recognized worldwide but only a few North American ticks will actually bite your pet. The American dog tick, the brown dog tick, the black-legged tick (deer tick), and the Lone Star tick are the most likely culprits. In dogs, tick bites can cause allergies, can prompt hot spots, and carry a host of diseases like Lyme disease, tick paralysis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and babesiosis. Most of the ticks found on dogs and puppies simply call for safe removal and then carefully watching the wound for infection. But a tick that transfers disease may leave more than just a wound behind. Assessing your puppy's symptoms for severity, and then treating them promptly, will help you get a leg up on this nasty pest.
When Does a Tick Bite?
Ticks are amazingly adaptable, which makes them extremely difficult to control. These spider relatives can remain dormant for months and a single female can lay 4,000 eggs. That said, ticks can reside on one, two, or three hosts throughout their lifetime. For instance, the black-legged tick prefers small rodents as larvae; larger animals like raccoons, cats, and humans as nymphs; and deer as adults (although they'll settle for cattle, coyotes, dogs, and other wildlife). This type of tick can infect itself with disease in either the larval or nymph stage, when it bites an infected rodent. It can then transmit disease to other victims, like puppies, in its adult stage.
When an adult tick bites a puppy and begins feeding, its body swells like a leathery balloon. You can find its head buried beneath the puppy's skin. Often, ticks prefer the soft, supple skin of a dog's face and ears and can be found in nooks and crevices, making them hard for your pet to scratch off. But ticks can also be found all over your pet's body, so a thorough check after exposure is advisable.
Symptoms of Tick Bites on Puppies
It's easy to tell if a tick bites your puppy when you locate a balloon-like creature blood sucking your pet. But if the tick has already had its meal, or has fallen off beforehand, how do you know if your puppy was bitten? Sometimes you don't. And these are the times that likely go without issues. However, a simple tick bite can show up as a minor skin irritation or an infection. Your pup could suffer blood loss from several bites, leading to anemia. And, in severe cases (which are becoming more and more common), your puppy could develop Lyme disease, which shows as a fever, swollen lymph nodes, lameness, and perhaps renal failure.
Less common is tick paralysis caused by a neurotoxin contained in a tick's saliva. Symptoms of this disease present six to nine days after a tick bite and are progressive in nature. They range from vomiting to unsteadiness to complete paralysis. If gone untreated, tick paralysis can move into a puppy's respiratory system, causing death.
Causes of Tick Bites
Ticks thrive in long grass or wooded habitats, so the lifestyle of your puppy determines its exposure. Does your pet enjoy an indoor-outdoor lifestyle, or is it confined to the apartment? If your dog roams the fields, romps through a backyard forest, or enjoys woodside walks on a leash, it's at risk for contracting ticks. Opportunistic ticks are in constant search for a warm body, making your pet, and it's hair, the perfect specimen to burrow into. And humid climates are more conducive to tick proliferation, making bites more prevalent in moist, coastal regions.
Just handling a tick can spread its disease, so if you see a tick, use gloves or a tissue to remove it. Blunt-nosed tweezers work great for removing embedded ticks from your puppy's skin. First, grasp the tick as close to the puppy's skin as possible and pull straight out, gently and slowly. Usually, a tiny bit of skin comes along for the ride, as it's attached to the tick's feeding head. If you pull the tick off, but the head remains buried, don't worry. The skin will either absorb the remaining tick parts or reject the foreign matter and form a scab. You can dress the bite site with an antibacterial spray, ointment, or hydrogen peroxide. But chances are, your dog will lick it and the bite will heal on its own, anyway. If you live in an area where Lyme disease is present, place the tick in a plastic bag with a moistened cotton swab and take it to your vet for analysis.
Treating Lyme Disease and Tick Paralysis
If your puppy contracts Lyme disease or is bitten by a tick that tests positive for the spirochete bacteria, your vet will likely prescribe an immediate regimen of tetracycline antibiotics. Usually, within three days the symptoms will resolve and your puppy should be back to its normal health. However—good news—only about 10 percent of dogs will develop an illness from Lyme, so some vets say that treatment is unnecessary in healthy puppies.
Tick paralysis, on the other hand, can be fatal for puppies. If your puppy shows signs of tick paralysis after being bitten by one or more ticks, a vet will usually dunk it in an insecticidal wash. While this usually resolves most acute symptoms, respiratory paralysis needs further treatment. Hospitalization, oxygen supplementation, and medicines that counter the effects of the tick toxins will need to be given to your dog, under intensive care, until it makes a full recovery.
How to Prevent Tick Bites
Since the Lyme-carrying ticks like mice and deer as hosts, clearing away vegetation that attracts these critters can help eliminate ticks in your yard. Cut your lawn short to allow the sunlight to shoo away the bugs. Keeping your pets away from problem areas and treating the bug's habitat with chemical or essential oil sprays also helps reduce the pest population. Inside your home, vacuum and wash puppy bedding regularly.
Many of the current flea products available for dogs also protect against ticks. Ask your veterinarian how best to protect your puppy, as age and health influence the type of product you should choose. And before using, always look at the label to make sure the product says it's safe for individual pets. Some products are not safe for use on puppies.