Tick Borne Disease Awareness & Prevention in Canines & Felines

Many pet owners are aware of the signs a pet has fleas and the means by which the pesky bloodsuckers are prevented.

Unfortunately, ticks are a different story in terms of the way they attach, the diseases they transmit, and preventive measures that must be taken.

Tick Friendly Environments

Like fleas, ticks require the right combination of environmental factors to prosper, including warmth, moisture, and nourishment.  Spring and summer are the seasons generally associated with ticks, as moisture and balmy temperatures support the tick lifecycle.  In most parts of the country, warmer temperatures drive humans and pets outside and potentially into the lairs of bloodthirsty ticks.

Urban settings generally aren’t as friendly to ticks as compared to suburban and rural environments, in part due to the lack of green space and creatures on which to feedFields and wooded areas provide safe havens for ticks to reproduce and plentiful access to animal hosts from which ticks acquire their nutrients from blood.

Unlike fleas, ticks aren’t going to jump onto your pet’s skin.  Ticks linger on the ends branches, leaves, and blades of grass to then grasp a cat, dog, or other animal’s fur or feathers when the host (organism on which a parasite feeds) brushes by.  Carbon dioxide, body heat, and other chemical attractants exuded by animals and people direct ticks to their next meal.

In the proverbial urban jungle of Los Angeles, I rarely see ticks on my patients and have achieved a positive diagnosis for tick-borne disease only on a handful of occasions.  Most of my patients live pampered, indoor lifestyles and participate in outdoor excursions on sidewalks or minuscule patches of frequently-clipped lawn or tick-unfriendly astroturf.

The most-common place for my patients to pick up a tick is on a hiking trail, where a seemingly innocuous brush up against the bushes at the trail’s edge creates the opportunity for a tick to latch on.  Whereas many fleas can take up residence on your pet’s skin, it’s most-common for ticks to be single or a few for a normally-mobile or healthy pet.  Immobile pets that may spend more time lying down in grassy areas or those that spend much time in tick-dense spaces are prone to being infested with numerous ticks.

Tick-Borne Disease Transmission

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health reports a variety of potentially fatal diseases originating in ticks, including:

  • Bacteria – Anaplasmosis, Ehrhlichia, Lyme Disease (Borrelia burdorferi), Mycoplasma (Haemobartonella), Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF), and Tularemia (AKA Rabbit Fever’)
  • Parasite – Babesia (a single celled organism, or protozoa)
  • Virus – Tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV, caused by a Favivirus)
  • Other – Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI, caused by an unknown agent), and Tick Paralysis (caused by a neurotoxin in tick saliva)

Ticks have sharp mouthparts (chelicerae and the pedipalps) that penetrate the skin and permit their feeding tube (hypostome) to enter the host.  Through the hypostome, ticks will feed and potentially transmit of the above infectious organismsFortunately, not every bite leads to the transmission of disease as not all ticks harbor such pathogens and typically two hours or more is required for disease to pass into the host.

Clinical Signs of Tick Infestation and Tick Borne Disease

Unlike fleas, owners generally won’t see their pets chewing, licking, and scratching at the site at which the tick attaches to the skin.  Visual inspection of your pet’s skin by separating tufts of hair and closely feeling all body parts typically permits a tick’s discovery.  The head, ears, neck, and legs are common locations for bites as they tend to brush against the grass or leaf harboring a hungry tick.

Pets suffering from tick-borne disease can show a variety of clinical signs, including:

  • Anorexia (decreased appetite)
  • Hyperthermia (elevated body temperature)
  • Joint and muscle soreness
  • Lethargy or reduced mobility
  • Mucous membrane pallor (pale gums)
  • Tachypnea (elevated respiratory rate)
  • Other

Besides direct damage to the joints, nervous system, internal organs (kidneys, etc.), and other body parts, tick-borne organisms can trigger immune mediated (“autoimmune”) disease.  My dog Cardiff has endured four episodes of Immune Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA) and each time I perform an extensive diagnostic panel to look for tick-borne disease and medicate him with a course of oral antibiotic therapy regardless of if the tick panel is positive or negative (as there can be false negatives).

Common Sense Approach to Tick Prevention

Keeping your pet tick-free requires a combination of environmental control and prevention.  I recommend my clients don’t permit their pets to roam free in their yards or go off lead during trail hikes or in wooded areasPreventing your canine or feline companion from entering locations where ticks lie in wait reduces their likelihood of exposure.

For pets that frequent tick (and flea) hot spots, I recommend veterinary-prescribed topical, oral, and/or collars to repel or kill ectoparasites.  I don’t suggest owners use over-the-counter chemical flea and tick preventatives, as what seems to be an appropriate product for one pet may actually cause a toxic response if used inappropriately (i.e. dog-specific product used on a cat).

I’m also a fan of natural alternatives like sprays and soaps containing plant-based oils provided they are used per the manufacturer’s guidelines in conjunction with a veterinarian’s oversight.

Quickly and Safely Detaching Ticks from Your Pet

Finding a tick on your pet doesn’t mean you should panic and rush him into the emergency veterinary hospital, but immediate removal upon discovery is certainly merited.

Owners should completely detach the tick, including mouthparts and head (collectively called the capitulum), from the skin using a commercially-available tick-removal tool or fine-tipped tweezers.  I don’t suggest using one’s bare hands or nails, as the tick’s body could be ripped away and the capitulum may remain attached to your pet.  Additionally, the tick’s blood potentially containing an infectious organism capable of transmitting to people could end up on your skin.

Once the blood-sucking insect is removed, contact your veterinarian for wound care instructions that best suit your pet’s needs.  Alternatively, if the thought of removing a tick from your dog or cat isn’t something you can tolerate then schedule an examination with your veterinarian.

If you think your pet has a tick but feel uncertain about the reality of the tick’s presence, then schedule an examination with your veterinarian.  In my years of veterinary practice, I’ve treated skin trauma occurring after an owner accidentally removed a pet’s nipple without realizing it actually wasn’t a tickIn such a situation, not only do owners feel incredible guilt for harming their pets, but significant pain is experienced by the pet and a potentially costly surgical repair is required.

As it’s summertime and prime tick season, I hope this article helps to keep your pet free of ticks and other parasites.

Meet the Author: Patrick Mahaney

Dr. Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, CVJ is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a concierge house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. Additionally, Dr. Mahaney offers holistic treatment for canine and feline cancer patients at the Veterinary Cancer Group (Culver City, CA).

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