Animal Health Matters: Take time to keep ticks off your pets this spring

Russ Daly
Special to Farm Forum
Russ Daly

In veterinary practice, I had a front seat to the variety of people’s reactions to creepy crawly things I’d find on their pets.

Ticks were a prime example. While some veteran animal caretakers would hardly bat an eye at fat bloated ticks covering their dog, others would become apoplectic at the site of a single insect crawling through the fur.

Personally, I’ve never been freaked out by ticks. Growing up on a farm, I was used to finding ticks on our dogs – and not infrequently on myself, for that matter. I regarded those creepy looking insects as simple nuisances.

Once in vet school, however, I learned of the problems ticks pose for us and our animals.

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

To anyone who’s seen a fat tick on their dog, perhaps the most obvious of these problems stems from the fact that these insects suck blood from their “hosts.” Blood loss anemia from tick infestations does occur, particularly in young lambs, calves or foals in grassy or wooded areas—this is relatively uncommon.

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

Perhaps the most recognizable of these is Lyme Disease. This disease is still relatively uncommon 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 people—if not treated.

Other tick-borne diseases can be equally problematic, including tularemia, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and anaplasmosis.

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

Besides dogs, animals such as sheep and cattle and even people can be affected. There’s no specific treatment, although simple removal of the ticks often results in recovery.

All these potential tick-related health problems should provide enough motivation to do what we can to prevent ticks from latching onto our dogs, cats and other animals under our care. The time for this is now: ticks are out already and really “enjoy” this time of year, before the heat of summer drives them into hiding.

While different types of ticks are associated with different tick-borne diseases, there are a couple underlying principles that come to light, regardless of the tick or the disease.

First, tick habitats are changing and expanding. For example, the deer tick that can carry the Lyme Disease bacteria is being found in more areas within South Dakota than before—mostly in the extreme northeast and extreme southeast. While climate patterns fluctuate, the longer term outlook would tell us that tick species are going to increasingly be found in areas they weren’t found in before.

Secondly, regardless of the tick species, none of them are good for our animals! Keeping them off our dogs and cats is always better than dealing with them after they’ve latched on. There are some excellent spot-on products that will prevent ticks from attaching to dogs.

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

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

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

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University.  He can be reached via e-mail at russell.daly@sdstate.edu or at 605-688-5171.