Ticks are skin parasites that attach themselves to an animal host to feed on the animal’s blood. Afterwards, they drop to the ground to lay numerous eggs and die. Ticks can carry diseases which can be passed on to your pets during feeding and they can also cause skin irritation leading to infection.
Ticks are usually encountered in grassy wooded areas when hiking on Vancouver Island. Ticks often attach to a dog’s head and chest area but it is important to systematically check over the whole body, especially in long-haired dogs. Cats are good at grooming themselves and removing their own ticks, but it is good practice to check them over as well.
What do ticks look like?
The appearance of the tick is usually brown or dark-coloured. They are small creatures that have eight legs and resemble spiders prior to feeding. Once a tick has attached to a host and begun their blood meal, their body increases in size to look somewhat like a swollen raisin.
Checking your pet over for ticks
The best way to spot ticks on your pet is to create a systematic routine for checking the whole body, especially after they have been outdoors during the tick season. On Vancouver Island, tick prevalence tends to spike during the summer months of May through to July, and again in the winter during January and February. During the summer months, you may find it easier for tick checking to trim the coat on longer-haired dogs.
Before you begin, find a comfortable spot for you and your pet in an area that has good lighting. Become familiar with your pet’s normal lumps and bumps such as skin tags, nipples, whisker bumps, and warts. It is a good idea to get your cat or dog used to being handled and touched from an early age with lots of positive reinforcement and encouragement.
Formulate a systematic approach for checking all areas of your pet’s body. It is a good idea to start with the head and neck as this is the area where you are most likely to find ticks on your pet. Be sure to check all grooves in the face including eyelids and inside the external ear canal (but do not prod too deep). Use your hands to feel for any small lumps or unusual textures.
When feeling the neck and chest, remove your pet’s collar or harness as they can provide a place for small ticks to hide under. Rub your hand along all areas of the body in a massaging motion against the direction of the fur. It is important to feel beneath the fur right at the skin as this is where ticks attach.
Continue feeling towards the legs and feet. Be sure to check under the armpits, in elbows, in the groin, and in between each toe. Tuck your fingers in along any natural grooves or indentations in the body.
If you feel an unusual lump or groove, do not immediately try to yank on it. Separate the fur and visualise the area to confirm that the lump is a tick before proceeding.
How to remove ticks
Learn the proper technique for removing ticks. An incorrect approach can cause compression or puncture of the tick causing it to regurgitate an infective blood meal back into your pet, or part of the tick being left behind in the skin.
It is recommended to wear disposable gloves or use a tissue so as not to handle the tick with bare skin. Ticks should be removed using fine-tipped tweezers or a specialised tick removal tool.
When using tweezers, avoid grasping the body of the tick as this will likely squeeze the blood meal back into your pet. The tick should be grasped as close as possible to your pet’s skin and pulled outward in a straight motion. Attempting to twist the tick can increase the likelihood of mouth parts being left behind.
Tick removers have a notch where the tick fits in. Tick removers should be slid across your pet’s skin towards the tick, where it will catch in the device and slide out. Commercial tick removers will have some variations so it is important to read the individual instructions.
Check the bite site to make sure that the whole tick has been removed including any mouth parts. Retained tick parts in the skin should be carefully removed with tweezers.
After removal, the bite site should be sterilised and a small amount of antiseptic lotion applied. The tweezers or tick remover should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected using isopropyl alcohol.
Do not try to smother a tick using any liquids (such as rubbing alcohol, nail polish remover, or petroleum jelly), or try to burn them off using a cigarette or match. Such methods can stress the tick causing it to release the blood meal back into the skin increasing the chance of infection.
Once the tick has been removed, proper disposal is important. Do not place the tick into the garbage as it is likely to crawl out and do not attempt to squeeze or pierce the tick as this increases the risk of exposure to harmful microorganisms.
The tick should be placed into a small jar with isopropyl alcohol or a ziplock bag (with an alcohol soaked cotton ball). The date should be marked and the tick preserved incase identification is needed later on (if disease occurs). Ticks can also be placed in a dry jar or ziplock bag and stored in the freezer.
Monitor your pet for signs of disease
Symptoms of tick-borne disease include persistent arthritis or lameness, joint swelling, lethargy, lack of appetite, fever, swollen lymph nodes, and lack of coordination. Infection in the bite area may appear as swelling, excessive itchiness, discharge, and persistent redness. If your pet displays any signs of disease or infection, they should be assessed by a veterinarian as soon as possible before the condition worsens.
While tick transmitted diseases are fairly uncommon on Vancouver Island, there is always a small risk. Tick-borne diseases are not transmitted instantly on contact with your pet (for example it takes approximately 48 hours for Lyme disease to be transmitted once the tick has attached) so quick removal can prevent infection. Infection and disease can be prevented with a combination of spot-on tick control treatments as well as vigilant checking and removal of ticks as they arise.