By Meg Puchlerz, DVM, CRPM
When folks think about the dangers of hunting, their minds often go to things like lacerations, wildlife encounters and orthopedic injuries. Flying below the radar is the tiny tick. Ticks are found on every continent — including Antarctica! Large numbers of ticks are most common from spring to late fall, but they can be a year-round problem. Tick distribution in an area can vary widely. You can hunt one field and not bring back a single unwanted passenger, and your buddy hunting one field over may bring back double digits.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, mosquito-borne and tick-borne diseases in people in the U.S. tripled between 2004 and 2016. Predictions for 2023 show tick-borne diseases continuing to expand southward and westward outside the historically high-risk areas such as the East Coast.
One tick can often be home to multiple diseases, and dogs can be infected with more than one disease from the same tick. Annual screening for the most common tick-borne diseases (anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis and Lyme disease) is a good idea for all dogs, since many won’t show symptoms.
Symptoms of tick-borne diseases can vary, but fevers, shifting leg lameness and general malaise are most common. Rashes aren’t common in dogs. Some tick-borne diseases, such as ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis can cause blood disorders leading to bruising and nosebleeds. Most tick-borne diseases take several weeks post tick bite to become symptomatic, but some diseases, such as Lyme disease, may not show symptoms for months.
If there’s a dent at all in the heavy armor of ticks, it’s that it takes time for them to transmit disease (usually 3 to 6 hours). Careful tailgate checks for ticks, and immediate removal can greatly decrease the risk of disease. Ticks can be anywhere on your dog, but hotspots tend to be the groin, armpits, nape of the neck and ears.
There are many myths surrounding tick removal. The simplest way to remove a tick is to use a pair of fine tweezers and grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and then slowly provide traction. The ticks will release their jaws and let go if light pressure is applied. Contrary to popular belief, tick mouthparts don’t easily break off and continue to burrow. If you don’t think you removed the tick in its entirely, don’t fear or continue to traumatize the skin. The area will heal on its own. It’s common for there to be some swelling at tick bite locations, especially the next day. It’s not a sign that pieces of the tick remain.
Applying salves, alcohol, nail polish or other topicals to the tick isn’t helpful and can make removal more difficult.
If removing several ticks, have a small bowl of alcohol nearby where you can place the ticks so they don’t immediately go crawling up someone else.
There are many options to prevent tick bites on your dog. Your dog’s exposure risk, and your own ability to follow through on giving the preventative, both play a role in deciding what product is best for you. In general, there are three main categories of tick prevention: topicals, orals and collars. All have their pros and cons. It’s important to note there are many preventatives out there that may be effective for fleas that aren’t effective for ticks. Make sure the product you select is clearly effective against ticks.
Although many over-the-counter options are available, prescription products from your veterinarian have more robust safety and efficacy studies behind them. A few exceptions are Frontline Plus, Advantix and Seresto collars, all of which were once prescription products but are now available over the counter. Many topical products also help prevent bites in general, not only from ticks and fleas, but also biting insects, such as flies and mosquitoes.
For dogs prone to allergies, I lean toward topicals that act as preventatives, so they don’t experience as many bug bites, which can cause allergy flares. Most topicals are waterproof and last for about a month. For those who dislike the residue they leave behind, dogs can be bathed within 48 hours of application.
Oral preventatives obviously don’t leave any residue behind, and can also eliminate infections from mites. However, they don’t prevent bites. Some oral preventatives also last more than eight weeks, making forgetful owners more likely to keep their dog protected.
Discuss your dog’s lifestyle and all your travel and hunting plans with your veterinarian so the most robust parasite prevention program can be developed for your dog. In areas with high rates of Lyme disease, your veterinarian may recommend multiple preventatives. Remember, prevention’s always cheaper than treating a disease. Stay safe and happy hunting!