Ticks are tiny creatures that frequently bite livestock, wildlife, humans, and pets and acquire disease-causing bacteria. Tick bites threaten pets and humans, and protecting your family requires stringent tick prevention and proper tick-removal strategies. Our Animal Care & Emergency Services team frequently treats pets with tick-borne disease signs or complications, and we want pet owners to understand how they can proactively protect their pets and avoid an emergency visit or long-term illness.
Why are ticks dangerous to pets?
Tick bites can lead to multiple pet problems, including local skin reactions, and—their most serious threat—tick-borne diseases. Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and babesiosis are a few common tick-borne diseases that affect pets or people and can lead to systemic illnesses and potentially severe long-term complications such as kidney failure or death. Ticks are active year-round in California, but peak in late winter and spring.
How can I keep ticks off my pet?
Effective tick prevention requires a multi-modal approach that includes these recommended strategies:
- Use a veterinary-approved flea and tick preventive — Flea and tick preventives are medications administered orally or topically once every one or three months, depending on the formulation and brand. Tick collars are good options for some pets, but may interact negatively with multiple other medications. Preventives that kill ticks after they attach are the best, as well as some that repel ticks so they do not attach.
- Use pet-safe repellents — Human insect repellents are not safe on pets, but natural formulas designed specifically for pets are available.
- Avoid tall grass and wooded areas — Stick to paved, mowed, or limestone trails rather than letting your pet run free through wooded or grassy areas.
- Check for and remove ticks after each trip outside — Brush your pet’s coat to remove loose ticks and check thoroughly for attached ticks each time you come in from outside. Pay special attention to spaces between toes, paw pads, and ear crevices.
How do I remove a tick from my pet?
Contrary to popular belief and many old wives’ tales, tick removal is not complicated. You can use either of these two methods:
- Tick tool — A commercial tick key or tick twister is a small plastic tool that can detach ticks easily and quickly. Follow the tool’s package instructions.
- Tweezers — Use blunt-ended tweezers to firmly grasp the tick’s head as close to the skin as possible, and then pull straight out with steady, slow pressure, until the tick lets go.
Don’t burn or smother the tick while still attached to your pet, which could increase the likelihood of disease transmission. Also, do not smash the tick after removal, because that could expose you and your pet to diseases the tick is carrying. Instead, place the tick in a container with rubbing alcohol.
What are the most common tick-borne disease signs?
Most tick-borne disease signs are similar at the beginning, but may not appear for a few days or weeks after the tick bite. Common signs include:
- Reduced appetite
- Limping or swollen joints
- Unexplained bleeding or bruising in the eyes, skin, or gums
- Pale gums
Many pets who contract a tick-borne disease can fight off the bacteria without getting sick, but others may progress to a chronic disease state and suffer complications such as anemia, kidney failure, or heart problems. Schedule a visit with your primary veterinarian or contact our team without delay if your pet becomes acutely sick with tick-borne disease signs.
Does my pet need a tick-borne disease screening test?
Dogs with regular, ongoing tick exposure should be screened for tick-borne diseases annually, usually at the same time as their heartworm test. Antibody titers and PCR tests can help to detect tick-borne disease in sick pets, but some give negative results early in the disease course. In this case, your veterinarian may treat your pet presumptively.
Most pet owners inevitably encounter ticks, especially if they frequently visit forest preserves, parks, or grassy open spaces—all the places their pets love! Instead of depriving your pet of adventure, use our strategies to avoid tick exposure and ask your pet’s primary veterinarian about the best tick-prevention products. Contact our Animal Care & Emergency Services team if your pet becomes acutely sick with tick-borne disease or other illness signs.