Ticks are biting parasites that usually live in the environment but latch onto a host for a blood meal each time they must molt or reproduce. With tick species spreading rapidly across the United States, tick bite health threats are becoming a more significant problem for pets and people. 

Our WesVet Animal Hospital team shares answers to pet owners’ most frequently asked questions about ticks to help them understand how to protect their furry companions.

Question: How do ticks spread diseases to pets?

Answer: Ticks feed on rodents and other wildlife that often carry bacteria that cause tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, Ehrlichiosis, or Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Ticks bite these hosts, ingest the bacteria, and spread them to another host while attaching and feeding. A feeding tick may be attached to its host for several days before falling off, and the longer the tick is attached, the more likely disease is to spread. Some bacteria take only a few hours, while others take up to 48 hours for transmission.

Q: How do tick preventive medications work?

A: Tick preventives are medications given to pets, and are designed to kill or repel ticks. Depending on the specific formulation, they may be administered orally or applied topically once a month or once every three months. Most tick preventives also control fleas, and some—usually topical formulas—also contain repellents. 

Administering tick prevention regularly is key to protecting pets, but understanding how they work is essential. Preventives generally will not stop ticks from crawling on your pet and will kill them only after they bite. Because preventives may take several hours to kill an attached tick, you still should remove any you find on your pet to reduce disease transmission.

Q: What are some other tick prevention strategies for pets?

A: You should take steps to avoid ticks when possible. Here are a few strategies:

  • Stay in the center of paved, mowed, or limestone paths when walking with your pet.
  • Keep pets leashed and avoid tall grasses or wooded areas.
  • Check pets for ticks immediately after returning from an outdoor adventure.
  • Keep grass on your property trimmed short.
  • Consult with a pest control or landscaping service if you have an existing tick problem on your property.
  • Consider a fence to keep out tick-transporting wildlife.

Q: How do I safely remove a tick from my pet?

A: Never burn or otherwise harm a tick you find on your pet, which can increase the chances it will transmit diseases. Instead, purchase a tick removal product, often called a tick twister or tick key, and follow the instructions for clean, easy removal. If you don’t have these products handy, use tweezers to grasp the tick’s head as close to the skin as possible and pull it straight out with slow, steady pressure. Apply an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment, such as Neosporin, to the site after removal.

Don’t smash the tick, which could expose you to any diseases it is carrying. Instead, place the tick in a small container with rubbing alcohol to kill it and make it easier to identify if needed. If you need help removing ticks from your pet or are unsure about the proper technique, contact our team for assistance.

Q: Can tick bites cause rashes or red bumps?

A: A normal tick bite reaction is a red, firm skin bump that lasts for a few weeks. Some pets may have an allergic reaction to a tick bite, developing a rash or itchy skin within a few hours or days of the bite. A bite site with a bump that becomes more red and more extensive or that develops a discharge over time could be infected, and our team should examine your pet.

Q: How do I know if a tick bite will make my pet sick?

A: Unfortunately, you cannot tell whether your pet has gotten a disease by examining the tick or the bite. You should instead watch your pet closely for illness signs, such as lethargy, reduced appetite, fever, enlarged lymph nodes, or limping, in the days and weeks following a bite and call our office if they occur. 

Q: Should my pet be tested for tick-borne diseases?

A: Testing for tick-borne diseases looks for antibodies your pet’s immune system produces to fight the bacteria, but these antibodies take time to develop. Testing won’t show a positive result until at least four to six weeks after a bite, so we would not recommend testing before this point. If your pet gets sick before the four- to six-week mark and we know about the tick bite, we can treat for suspected disease without testing. Pets with ongoing tick exposure should have a routine tick-borne disease screening performed during their annual wellness visit.

Ticks will threaten your pet’s health if you don’t take action to protect against them. Contact the WesVet Animal Hospital team if you have more questions about tick control and prevention or to schedule a wellness visit, tick-borne disease screening, and parasite prevention consultation.