Ticks and the problems they cause

In veterinary practice, I had a front-row seat to the variety of people’s reactions to creepy, creepy things I found on their pets.

Ticks were a perfect example. While some veteran pet sitters would pay little attention to large, swollen ticks covering their dog, others would go apoplectic at the site of a single insect crawling through the fur.

Personally, I have never been frightened by ticks. Growing up on a farm, I used to find ticks on our dogs – and quite often on myself, for that matter. I thought of these creepy bugs as mere nuisances.

Once in veterinary school, however, I learned about the problems ticks pose for us and our pets.

A blacklegged tick, or deer tick, under a microscope.

For anyone who has seen a large tick on their dog, perhaps the most obvious of these problems is that these insects suck the blood of their “hosts”. Anemia due to blood loss from tick infestations occurs, especially in young lambs, calves, or foals in grassy or wooded areas, which is relatively rare.

More common is the phenomenon of tick-borne diseases: those transmitted from animal to animal by ticks. Many of these diseases appear on lists of human and animal diseases.

Perhaps the most recognizable of these is Lyme disease. This disease is still relatively rare in South Dakota compared to our neighbors in Minnesota and eastward, but deserves attention because of the long-term health effects it can create – in dogs or humans – if left untreated.

Other tick-borne diseases can be just as problematic, including tularemia, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and anaplasmosis.

Another interesting phenomenon related to ticks is tick paralysis. Some ticks carry a specific toxin in their saliva which, when injected into a dog, interferes with chemicals that transmit signals from nerves to muscles, resulting in paralysis. This normally occurs when dogs are parasitized by several ticks at the same time, although a single tick may be enough to cause signs in some dogs.

Besides dogs, animals such as sheep and cattle and even humans can be affected. There is no specific treatment, although simply removing ticks often results in a cure.

All of these potential tick-related health issues should provide enough motivation to do what we can to keep ticks from latching onto our dogs, cats, and other pets in our care. The time has come: the ticks have already come out and are really ‘enjoying’ this time of year, before the summer heat drives them into hiding.

While different types of ticks are associated with different tick-borne diseases, there are a few underlying principles that stand out regardless of the tick or the disease.

First, tick habitats are changing and expanding. For example, the deer tick that can carry Lyme disease bacteria is found in more parts of South Dakota than before, primarily in the far northeast and far southeast. Although climate patterns fluctuate, the longer-term outlook would tell us that tick species will increasingly find themselves in areas where they weren’t before.

Secondly, whatever the species of tick, none is good for our animals! Keeping them away from our dogs and cats is always better than caring for them after they have latched on. There are excellent spot products that will prevent ticks from attaching to dogs.

For cats, it’s important to remember never to use products that aren’t specifically labeled for cats, as some dog insecticides can be lethal to them. Insect repellents containing DEET, while good for humans, are not recommended for pets because they can make them sick if they lick it off their fur. If you find a tick on yourself or your pet, take care to remove it with tweezers so that the entire tick is removed.

Another challenge with tick-borne diseases in animals is that the signs of the disease are often quite vague and can be confused with many other conditions.

A challenge with these diseases is that the signs of the disease are often vague and mimic other conditions, so contact your veterinarian promptly if you suspect problems. And take the time to think about how you can prevent ticks from affecting your pet – and yourself – this spring.

Russ Daly, DVM, is an extension veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or 605-688-5171.

Boyd S. Abbott