Tick Bites on Pets

A hand holding a tick

Michael Braun/E+ / Getty Images

Finding a tick (or its bite) on your dog or cat is a common occurrence for owners of outdoor-loving pets. Ticks are prevalent throughout the spring, summer, and fall in humid, low elevation climates. And while some ticks—like the brown dog tick, the Rocky Mountain wood tick, or the Lone Star tick—don't harbor diseases like Lyme, they still need to be safely removed if you find one on your pet. Deer ticks, on the other hand, do carry infectious diseases, warranting additional care and precautions upon removal.

What Is a Tick Bite?

Tick bites present when a tick burrows its head beneath the host's skin to suck its blood. Look for a black or brown ballooned body (void of a head) to identify the intruder. Then, with a few simple measures, remove the culprit at home and tend the wound (which should look like a reddened bug bite). While early and proper removal is key, most bites do not spread disease to your pet. Still, should complications arise—like a sick dog or a bite from a Lyme-infested tick—save the invader in a plastic bag or jar and schedule a vet appointment to quell future complications.

Symptoms of Tick Bites on Pets

After a summer romp in the woods, you'll sometimes see uninvited hitchhikers on your pet. Ticks, fleas, and mosquitos are the most likely culprits. Larger dog ticks or wood ticks (the easiest to spot) stand out on the light-colored fur of yellow Labs and Siamese cats, giving you time to brush them off before they latch on. However, on black and dark-colored animals a tick may burrow and bite, even after a tick check is performed. Check your dog for small creatures around the soft-skinned areas of its head, neck, ears, and feet. Feel and inspect any lumps under its coat. If you see a black or brown balloon-like bump, chances are the tick is now feasting on your pet's blood. Unexplained scabs can also show as symptoms of a recent tick bite. And if your pet is shaking its head or itching itself in one spot, immediately check the vicinity to make sure it's not due to a tick bite.

Causes of Tick Bites

Ticks and warm weather go hand in hand, making it almost impossible to evade them altogether. They live in grass, trees, shrubs, and leaf piles just waiting for a host to saunter on by. Ticks need blood to survive every stage of their lifecycle, making animals and people the perfect hosts. They can even pop back and forth from one host to another, allowing one single tick to survive up to three years. Ticks are attracted to a mammal's breath, body heat, and body odor and they wait in position (called "questing") until the perfect host walks by. Then, with outstretched legs (ticks can't fly or jump), they latch on and begin feeding as soon as they find a warm, penetrable spot.

Treatment

Perform a tick check on your pet after coming in from an outdoor play session. Latex or leather gloves and good natural lighting are needed for a thorough examination. Inspect the hair around the ears and face and on the legs and belly. If you find a tick embedded in the skin, use fine-pointed tweezers or a tick remover tool to grasp as close to the skin as possible at the point of attachment. Use a steady and firm grip to slowly pull the tick straight out from the skin. Some tick-removing tool suppliers, like the Tick Twister, suggest a circular twisting motion while pulling. Try not to puncture the tick's body. Doing so may cause potential pathogens to release into your pet while the tick is embedded. Once the tick is removed, clean the skin with mild soap and water, then inspect the tick to determine the species. If it's a deer tick, place it into a zip-top bag or a jar of alcohol, note the date, and then call your vet. Tick identification and the location of infestation are important to note, should complications arise.

If the tick breaks off in the skin, you can try to remove it as you would a splinter. However, it's best to leave the separated part alone. The body will reject it in time. Also, do not use a match or caustic materials in an attempt to get the tick to back out. This action may cause the hijacker to regurgitate saliva (and potential pathogens) into the skin. The same goes for "smothering" the tick with petroleum jelly or a similar material.

How to Prevent Tick Bites

Since keeping your pet locked up indoors only creates an unhealthy lifestyle, the best prevention for tick bites, arguably, is regular tick checks. When you're outside playing, try to avoid areas with tall grasses or large piles of brush and decaying leaves. Keep your own yard well-groomed by cutting the grass, trimming the shrubs, and pruning dead flowers. You can also enlist a professional pest controller to spray your yard, ridding it of ticks during the prime season. Many companies opt for natural control methods and use essential oils in lieu of harsh chemicals. Lastly, tick repellent pet products, like collars, shampoos, and sprays, can ward off ticks and prevent their bites. However, the more powerful products may be harmful to dogs and cats, and are not recommended for use on puppies or kittens.