Did you know that a tick can increase its weight by 100 times during the 8-12 days that it is attached and feeding from its host? It’s the return of tick season here in Charlotte, and that means that your entire family is at risk: four-legged and two-legged alike. Beyond the thought of having a tick being gross to people, there are some basics that we should know about ticks, the diseases they can spread, and how to prevent our pets from being hosts to these parasites.
Ticks are arachnids, making them related to mites and spiders. Most species of ticks are only active in the warmer months of spring, summer, and fall. From larval to adult life stages, ticks live solely on the blood of their hosts with each tick having a few different hosts during its life cycle. They wait in leaf litter, along building crevices, shrubs, grass, etc. for a possible host to come along into the right place at the right time.
Female ticks lay hundreds or thousands of eggs at a time then two weeks later, larval ticks emerge from their eggs and wait in the leaf litter or grass they hatched in for their first meal to walk by. Many generations of ticks cycle each year.
Ticks are gross. We can all agree on that point. But they can also be dangerous. They can transmit several different life-threatening diseases such as Lyme, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and erlichiosis among others. Dogs, in particular, can also be affected by a condition called tick paralysis in which a toxin secreted by the tick can affect the nervous system. This typically starts with weakness of the limbs about a week after the tick first attaches to the dog, and it can progress to cause difficulty breathing or swallowing. Cats are largely unaffected by this, though. The CDC has a complete list of tick-borne diseases that is very useful.
It’s best to get familiar with the variety of diseases and their symptoms. For example, common signs of Lyme in dogs and cats (and people) can include fever, lethargy, lameness from joint pain, swollen lymph nodes, and in some cases this can progress to serious heart, kidney, or nervous system complications. The challenge with spotting symptoms of these diseases in pets is that they don’t have some of the other tell-tale symptoms that humans do, such as a large rash, as an early indicator that there is a problem. It’s a good idea to read up, talk to your vet, and get familiar with any possible symptoms of any of our common tick-borne diseases in our region.
If you or your vet suspect one of these diseases, the first thing to do is a blood test. The earlier a disease is caught the better, and many are treated over a period of several weeks with antibiotics. Many tick-borne diseases go undiagnosed or unconfirmed, especially in pets, because the symptoms can be similar or other medical issues at first glance. From 2000-2015, Mecklenburg County had 87 confirmed cases of Lyme, but the actual number of cases could far exceed that.
An important point about the diseases that ticks carry is that many don’t happen immediately. Lyme, for example, usually requires about 48 hours of the tick being attached for the disease to spread into your pet’s bloodstream. So even with a tick bite, there may still be a window of time where you can prevent significant illness.
An Ounce of Prevention…
There is no way to be completely sure your dog or cat will not get ticks, but there are some important things you can do to greatly reduce the risk of getting ticks and especially the risk of them getting an illness from them.
- Avoid letting your pets spend time in areas that are likely to have ticks. This is sometimes easier said than done, but it is worth the effort. Limit access or time in areas where ticks thrive when possible.
- Always use an anti-tick medication on your pets. Most also prevent infestations of other types of parasites as well, which varies by brand.
- Make a habit of checking your pets for ticks. The faster they are removed, the less likely they will spread illness to your pets. Time can be a factor here.
Feel free to ask us about which products we recommend the most for our patients to prevent ticks. Because of the fast lifecycle of ticks, they, like fleas, are able to genetically adapt to products that have been on the market for a long time which can gradually lower their efficacy. What worked for your dog 20 years ago might not offer the most protection now.
Finally, a word of caution for cat-owners. Or, rather, those who are owned by cats! Some of the flea and tick medications that are safe for dogs are not safe for cats at all. Please read the labels of your product and exercise caution when going through the monthly routine of administering the medication. Cats who are mistakenly given certain medications labeled for dogs can have serious, life-threatening reactions.