Summer means tick season, when those bloated little arthropod vampires get warm and hungry and start feeding on cattle, wildlife, humans-and dogs. But ticks aren't just disgusting, they're also dangerous. When ticks bite wild animals, such as deer or squirrels, they take in the bacteria these animals may harbor and can pass them along to their next host. Some bacteria can cause diseases in dogs (and in people)-dangerous, debilitating, and sometimes even fatal diseases such as Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
As if that wasn't reason enough to prevent ticks, you should know that if a tick does attach itself to your dog by sinking its pincers into your pet's vulnerable flesh, you will have to pull the blood-filled, engorged little sucker off with your own hands. Ewww.
The problem is, it isn't easy to prevent those tiny, persistent, and eerily aware critters from finding your dog. Ticks can sense trace gases, such as carbon dioxide, in the air, alerting them to the presence or approach of a warm-blooded mammal. Many ticks congregate in places where mammals tend to pass, such as in the hushes and trees along the edges of hiking trails, or even in tall grass or leaf piles in your own backyard. Ticks know where your dog is going. Creepy, right?
But don't be afraid. A two-pronged approach to tick management can keep your dog (and you) safe and, if not always completely tick-free, at least protected from the dangerous diseases ticks spread.
Just follow this plan: prevention and prompt removal.
Obviously, keeping ticks off your dog in the first place is better than having to pull them off. You can discourage tick attacks in several ways; practicing all of them will make your dog downright unsavory to nasty critters.
First, determine whether you live in a tick-prone area. The Northeast is the worst, but many other areas of the country have ticks too, so ask your veterinarian if ticks are a problem where you live. Tick articles often advise avoiding tick-prone areas such as woods and tall brush, especially in the summer, but what fun is that if you and your dog love to spend time outdoors? If you know ticks hang out in your neck of the woods, take extra precautions instead.
Those precautions begin with keeping your dog well-groomed. Regular brushing, combing, and bathing keep your dog's skin and coat strong and healthy. Ticks tend to prey on weak, dirty, sick animals with broken skin. A healthy, wel- groomed dog is more attractive to us but less attractive to ticks, who prefer a dirty dog with a poor immune system for a host, To keep your dog's skin (and overall health) in even better shape, make sure he eats a balanced and high-quality diet, especially one containing essential fatty acids (EFAs) either in his food or as a supplement. EFAs help strengthen and improve skin and coat quality, making your dog even less appealing to ticks.
I definitely recommend using a tick-control product on your dog. If you take your dog into woodsy areas often, a monthly spot-on product is a great choice to prevent both ticks and fleas. If you go into the woods only once in a while, a tick collar can be effective. (While you're at it, spray yourself with bug spray to keep ticks as well as mosquitoes off your own skin.) Ask your veterinarian about the best and safest tick-prevention products appropriate for your dog, because your vet will consider your dog's health, age, size, and also the risk of ticks where you live.
Finally, keep your yard tick-free so you don't have to worry about them hopping on for a dinner cruise in your own back- yard. Keep woodpiles and brush piles far from the house and out of the fenced area where your dog plays. Keep your grass mowed short and trim the longer grass that grows along fences and around garden borders. If ticks don't have good, sheltered spots to hang out and await your dog's approach, they'll go somewhere tick-friendlier.
Despite your best efforts, dogs (especially the outdoorsy ones) are likely to get a tick every now and then. In that case, prompt removal is essential because the longer a tick is attached to your dog, the greater the chances that it will transmit a disease. Most tick bites don't result in disease, but the chance that they could makes it important to remove the little blood- suckers without delay.
Every time you go into the woods with your dog, do a tick check as soon as you get home. Work through your dog's coat with a fine- toothed steel flea comb or, if your dog has a short coat, just use your hands to look and feet all over for suspicious bumps and ceepy-crawlies. Ticks are particularly hard to spot on dark-colored dogs, so look care- fully, especially in the areas ticks like to frequent, such as behind or inside ears, around the rear end under the tail, or on the chest and belly where there is less hair and the skin is easy to puncture.
If you see a tick, remove it immediately. Drop it into a small cup of alcohol to kill it, then flush it down the toilet. Or, if you think the tick has been attached for a day or more and you want to know if it might be carrying a disease, wrap it in a moist paper towel, put it in a jar, and call your vet to see if she thinks you should have the tick tested.
But wait! Before you start yanking off engorged ticks, keep in mind that they are swollen with blood that is possibly laced with disease-carrying organisms. Put on rubber gloves or use a paper towel so that blood doesn't get onto your bare skin.
Once you're properly protected, firmly grasp the tick as close as possible to where its head is attached to the dog. Pull straight up, not to the side. The tick may come all the way out, or it may leave its mouth parts behind. Don't worry if it does. Pull out whatever you can, then swab the area with a little disinfectant and dab on some antibiotic cream. Your dog's body will eventually push out the foreign parts, but keep an eye on the area. If it starts to look infected-red, swollen, filled with pus, give your veterinarian a call.
If you really don't want to grab the tick by hand, you could also use tweezers (wash with alcohol before and after) or a special tool designed for removing ticks, which you can find in many pet-supply stores. Even with a tool, wear gloves or use a paper towel to protect yourself: If the tick bursts when you're pulling it out, the blood could still spray on your skin.
And there you have it, all the gory details you never wanted to know about ticks but knew you really should know anyway. May you have a tick-free summer, but if things don't work out quite that way, at least you'll know exactly what to do about it.