Living where we do, where the weather is warm and beautiful more often than not, spending time outdoors is a daily aspect of our lives. Whether it be a day out on the lake, a weekend camping, or even relaxing in our own backyard on the patio, we spend a lot of time outside. This mean that exposure to ticks and all the potential diseases that they spread is a very real concern for us and our furry friends.
It is important to know just what these nasty little parasites are, the dangers they pose, how to decrease your exposure to them, and prevent them from transmitting serious diseases to both your and your pets.
Just what are ticks anyway?
Ticks are arthropod parasites that feed on the blood of their host. They are attracted by motion, body heat, and the carbon dioxide that mammals exhale. All of these factors are why humans, dogs and cats are targets of these parasites.
Ticks have a very complicated life cycle and are extremely hardy. Their life cycle spans roughly two years. During this time, they mature from egg, to larva, to nymph, to adult. A mature female can lay up to 6,000 eggs per batch!!!
The maturation from larva to nymph and nymph to adult both require a blood meal from a host. Usually ticks have more than one host that is needed to complete their life cycle. Nymphs are very small, about the size of a freckle. These tiny parasites are already capable of attaching to a human or animal and transmitting disease. Once the nymph moves into the adult stage, the adult attaches to a host for about 8-12 days, mates with a male, become inactive through the winter, then lays a new batch of eggs in the spring starting the cycle over again.
There are numerous species of ticks. Each species prefers particular hosts, they are found in different regions of the country, and are capable of transmitting a multitude of potentially deadly diseases.
What ticks are found in this area?
Again, because of our long warm season, ticks are drawn to the south. Additionally, the large number of wooded areas are prime real-estate for these creepy crawlers.
Louisiana is home to four major tick species, all capable of transmitting disease.
- American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis)- Transmits Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
- Brown Dog Tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus)- Transmits Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
- Lone Star Tick “seed ticks” (Amblyomma americanum)- Transmits Ehrlichia
- Blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis)- Transmits Lyme disease, Anaplasma, and Babesia
So what exactly are the diseases that these ticks transmit?
“Tick-borne” disease is a broad term used to describe different bacteria that ticks transmit to their host during a blood meal. The amount of time it takes to transmit these bacteria to the host is unknown, but the transmission is highly likely if the tick remains attached for 48 hours or more.
These bacteria mostly live inside white blood cells and cause a multitude of symptoms, ranging from fever, joint pain and lethargy, to severe anemia, loss of platelets, meningitis, kidney failure, and death.
The frightening thing about these diseases is often our pets are infected and have no clinical signs. They may be infected with these bacteria for weeks to months and appear healthy. After an incubation period, clinical signs can occur acutely. They can also become chronically affected and have periods where the clinical signs flare up.
Common tick-borne diseases in our area include:
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
- Lyme disease (Fortunately, even though the tick that transmits Lyme disease is in our area, because the nymph stage of the tick feed on reptiles, this makes the ticks unable to transmit the bacteria, so Lyme disease is not really apparent here)
What signs would I see if my pet is infected with a tick-borne disease?
While there are many different bacteria that cause these diseases, the clinical signs are relatively similar for each disease, some just more serious and life-threatening. These bacteria attack platelets, red and white blood cells. Almost every organ system can be affected by the bacteria and the body’s attempt to fight off these bacteria. Common signs include:
-swollen or painful joints/lameness
-enlarged lymph nodes
-ocular or nasal discharge
-red spots or bruising on the skin
-cough or changes in respiration
-weakness/balance problems/ incoordination
Are these diseases treatable?
Once your pet is seen by their veterinarian, blood tests are performed to confirm the presence of this disease as well as to see how severely the pet is affected.
There are many stages of tick-borne disease and early identification is very important.
Treatment is primarily an antibiotic that is given for one month. However, often these pets are very sick and often require aggressive supportive care. This can include IV fluids, pain medication, blood transfusion due to life-threatening anemia and lack of platelets, and sometimes anti-seizure medication. Often these bacteria cannot be completely “cured” They are able to hide from the body’s immune system so well, that it can be impossible to completely irradiate them from the body.
What can I do to prevent this from happening to my pet?
There are two ways to prevent you pet from contracting one of these awful diseases, decreasing the number of ticks in the environment and preventing ticks from attaching to your pet.
- Creating a tick-safe zone
- remove leaf litter
- clear tall grasses and brush around homes
- create a 3ft wide barrier of wood chips or mulch around lawns and wooded areas to prevent tick migration
- stack wood neatly and in a dry area (decreases rodents which are a tick host)
- Use fences to discourage unwelcome animals that serve as hosts (stray animals, deer, raccoons, rabbits)
- remove any objects from the yard that may give ticks a place to hide
- Prevent ticks from attaching
- Examine your pet every time your pet comes back from an area that is inhabited by ticks (pay close attention to the face, ears, feet, and neck). If you find a tick attached to your pet, removal can be difficult. Use tweezers and gently pull with steady pressure, never twist or jerk as the mouthparts can remain in the skin. Never use home remedies (matches, petroleum jelly, alcohol or nail polish). These methods are proven not to work and can be very harmful to your pet.
- Use oral and topical preventatives for your pets. It is very important to consult with your veterinarian the best preventative for your pet. Be cautious of over-the-counter products. Often these products contain pesticides that can be very harmful to your pets, even at the recommended dose. This is particularly true for cats. Your veterinarian will be able to assist you in determining the best product for your pet and your pet’s lifestyle.
Ticks are a nuisance that unfortunately we encounter often. But good preventative measures can vastly decrease the chances that these nuisances could potentially wreak havoc in you or your pet’s lives. Be vigilant, use preventatives, and be on the lookout for changes in your pet’s behavior that may be a sign of a problem. This way both you and your pet can enjoy your time outdoors worry-free.
Always contact your veterinarian with questions and concerns regarding tick-borne diseases and preventatives and I am always available for more information. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org mailto:email@example.com or contact University Veterinary Hospital at 318-797-5522.