Nothing creeps people out more than finding a tick on their pet (or themselves for that matter). Because of pets hair it can be difficult to find ticks on your pets until they have been feeding for a few days and become engorged. When this is the case we can get concerned because ticks do transmit several diseases that are transferred to animals after the tick feeds. First, lets talk a little about the tick life cycle. Ticks have 4 life stages: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. Depending on the species this cycle can take a year to 2 years to complete. The larva, nymph, and adults all can feed on mammals.
In Illinois there are numerous tick species, but the most common that may be encountered are the American dog tick, lone star tick, blacklegged (deer) tick, brown dog tick and winter tick. Most species are active in the spring and early summer and then are more dormant throughout the rest of the year (however, ticks can be active any time of year when temperatures are above 45 degrees). Ticks hang around on the tips of grasses and scrubs (not trees) and when the plant is brushed by a pet or person they crawl onto the host. Using their mouth pieces they attach to the skin and feed on the blood of the host. When they bite, ticks typically secrete saliva that has anesthetic properties, so the bite is not felt. Ticks can feed for several days and become quite engorged prior to falling off.
Why is it important to try and prevent tick bites? When ticks feed on blood, they can also transmit diseases to the host they are feeding on. Common diseases that are passed include Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Lyme disease, Erlichia, Anaplasmosis, as well as other blood-borne pathogens. Many of these organisms attack red blood cells, white blood cells, blood vessel lining cells and other cells in the body and can have serious, and possibly life threatening consequences. So, it is much more advantageous to prevent attachment of ticks then to treat the diseases that may be passed along by a tick bite.
How do you go about preventing tick exposure. There are numerous products available that help repel ticks. Many of the products are topical spot-on liquids that go on the back of the shoulder blades and last for around a month. These products also typically protect against fleas. Frontline and Advantix have been around for awhile and work fairly well. Be cautious with using Advantix (dog only product) in a household with cats because it contains a permethrin which can cause problems (seizures, tremors) in cats. Merial (the maker of Frontline) recently came out with another product called Certifect, which is the active ingredient in Frontline plus an added ingredient (amitraz) which helps repel ticks more strongly.
There is also a very good product called Preventic, which is a collar containing amitraz that is put around the neck. It starts working within 24 hours of application and lasts for 3 months. This collar works very well and we don't see many side effects associated with it. Occasionally, owners of pets with a Preventic collar may have a skin reaction when petting their animal. Also, if ingested the collar can cause major issues, so if you have a pet who is good at getting collars off, this may not be the product for you.
What if you find a tick on your pet? If the tick is not attached, simply remove the tick and dispose of it outside or in the garbage. We will put them in alcohol to kill them prior to throwing them out. If they are attached, then the tick should be removed. Grasp the head of the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull straight out. If you are not comfortable doing this, then contact your veterinarian and they can do it for you. If the tick is engorged and you are in an area where ticks carry diseases (see above), then watch your pet closely for any signs of sickness (inappetence, lameness, lethargy). Some veterinarians will start prophylactic antibiotics in this situation to treat tick-borne diseases. Others may wait and suggest running tick-borne antibody titers in 8-12 weeks after exposure.
Ticks can cause huge problems, so it is best to prevent them in the first place. Let me know if you have any questions.