Ticks 101

Vikki Johnson, CVT
Veterinary Information Specialist
Pet Poison Helpline®

Fleas and ticks can be a not so fun part of owning a dog or cat. We’ll cover some basic tick information and leave the fleas for a later date.

Ticks have 4 life stages: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. After the egg hatches the tick will need to feed during each stage in order to continue to the next, sometimes taking 3 years for the full life cycle. When looking for a host the tick will “quest” or reach their forward legs out to grab onto any passing animal or human. They can tell if a possible host is in the area by detecting body heat, breath, or by vibrations. Ticks can be found just about everywhere but tall grass, wooded areas, and leaf debris tend to have more ticks so by keeping your lawn mowed and your yard free of debris you can limit the number of ticks in your yard. When out on a walk try to keep to sidewalks or trails.

Ticks are ectoparasites which means they live on the outside of the animal. They attach by inserting their mouthparts into the skin and will feed on the blood. During this feeding they can expose the dog or cat to a number of different diseases including Lyme disease, Ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and Anaplasmosis. The disease the tick may be carrying can depend on the kind of tick and the area of the country, with some ticks carrying more than one disease. Some of these diseases are also a concern for humans so by reducing ticks on our pets we can help protect our families too.

If you find an attached tick on your pet it is best to remove it as soon as possible to limit the exposure to disease:

  • Use small tweezers to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible.
  • Pull gently, straight up until the tick releases.
  • If the body breaks away leaving the mouth parts, use the tweezers to remove the remaining parts. If you are not able to remove the mouthparts with out causing damage to the skin, leave them, they will eventually fall out on their own.
  • Clean the area with a mild cleanser or alcohol and then wash your hands.
  • Monitor the area for localized infection. Dogs do not get the red “bulls eye” rash associated with Lyme disease in people.

Place the tick in a container and contact your regular veterinarian for further advice. If they recommend sending it in for testing, the lab will first identify the tick species and then will do DNA testing to identify any disease the tick may be carrying. This testing is not commonly done and may not be helpful since there may have been other ticks feeding on the pet possibly exposing them to other disease.

Prevention is recommended for most dog and cats, even during the winter months since ticks can be active any time the temperature is above 32 degrees. There are a number of different products available including topical liquids, collars, and oral medications. Dogs can also be vaccinated to reduce the chance of Lyme disease. Depending on where you live or your activity (hiking, camping, hunting) you may need to use multiple kinds of prevention to get the best protection. Your vet will be able to recommend products or vaccines based on your region and your pet. Make sure to read the label and use products correctly since many dog products can be toxic to cats.

For more information on ticks or the kinds that may be in your region, check the reference sites listed below. If you have been exposed to a tick you should contact your medical doctor for further advice.