It is spring time in Southern Ontario — time for an update about Ticks !
Ticks are continuing their migration toward the Greater Toronto Area. But we’re ready for them and we want you to be too. This article aims to help you understand the risk that ticks present, identify ticks of greatest concern, & take steps to reduce the risk of acquiring tick-borne diseases so you & your dog can continue to enjoy the outdoors in good health.
What exactly is a tick and why are ticks a concern?
Ticks are external parasites that belong to the same family of bugs as spiders. They have several life stages: The adults lay eggs, eggs hatch into larvae, larvae molt into nymphs, and nymphs mature into adults that go on to lay more eggs. Adult ticks have 8 legs, 2 body parts, a flat body (when their bellies aren’t full of a blood meal), & a hard outer skeleton (hard to squish but don’t even try because you might release any disease they may carry). Both adult ticks and nymphs are vectors for (meaning they can carry) certain diseases that can be transmitted to you and your dog when they attach and feed. Not all adults and nymphs carry disease, but some do and their numbers are increasing.
Understanding tick behavior
Unlike fleas & mosquitoes, ticks can’t jump or fly onto their hosts. Instead, they “quest” when they’re hungry for a blood meal. That is, they cling to vegetation (e.g., a leaf or a tall piece of grass) with their back legs & reach out with their front ones so they can grab on & climb aboard any host that passes by (a bird, rodent, deer, dog, or a person, for example). They can sense a potential host through body heat & vibrations.
Once on board, some ticks wander around looking for the best seat in the house (like on or near an ear where skin is thin). Others will settle in wherever they land. They’re pretty hungry at this point and literally do a face plant when they feed, embedding their heads into skin and sucking up blood through a feeding tube for several days. Once they’ve had their fill, they fall off their host and move on to their next life stage. You’d think we hosts would notice, but ticks are really small (hard to see until they’re engorged with a blood meal) and some species release a kind of local anesthetic when they feed so their hosts don’t notice they’re there.
It’s only while adult ticks or nymphs are feeding that they can pick up a disease carried by one host & pass it on to another.
Which ticks are a concern?
The three most common species of ticks in Southern Ontario are listed below along with where they hang out and the diseases they can transmit if they’re infected with them. The incidence of most tick-borne diseases is still pretty low. But black-legged ticks that transmit Lyme disease in particular are growing in numbers, including Etobicoke and the general Greater Toronto Area.
It is solid black in black-legged ticks and more “ornate” with some white in American dog ticks. (Brown dog ticks don’t have a distinct scutum.) That said, ticks are small, so even identifying them by their scutum is challenging.
When is tick prevention recommended?
At any point that you’re seeing an area on the ground without snow cover and the temperature is greater than 4°C (let’s say above freezing to be safe), ticks will be out questing for a meal. In our part of Ontario, people and their pets need protection from March through November. Adult ticks are active in the spring and fall. Nymphs are active during the summer. Nymphs pose the greater risk to people because they’re around at a time when people are wearing shorts & tee-shirts & have more skin exposed, and nymphs are so tiny (1-2 mm in diameter!) they’re hard to spot.
How can I protect myself and my dog?
We are recommending several products, if your dog prefers a chewable tablet we are recommending Nexgard (for ticks and fleas) and Heartgard (for heartworm), and if you are already on revolution and you’re worried about ticks we recommend adding Bravecto for added protection, appropriate clothing and bug spray for you, staying on trails and keeping your dog on a leash, and doing tick checks after you’ve been outdoors. It can take as little as 24 hours for the black-legged tick to transmit the bacterium that causes Lyme disease if it’s carrying it, so the sooner you remove any ticks, the better. If you find a tick on your dog, we can run a quick blood test to check for exposure to disease.
What’s the best way to remove a tick?
There’s a nifty 2-pronged tool for the job (pictured left) that we can give you.
1) Pick the large or small one depending on the size of the tick. 2) Engage the tick between the prongs of the tool approaching it from the side. 3) Gently lift & turn (clockwise or counter clockwise) until the tick releases its hold. 4) Disinfect the bite site and wash your hands. Alternatively, grasp the tick close to the skin with tweezers and gently but firmly lift upward. The goal is to remove the tick with its mouth parts intact. (If you leave anything behind it’ll cause a reaction under the skin.) DO NOT put oils, Vaseline, or other concoctions on the tick (we worry that it’ll cause the tick to regurgitate into its host – exactly what we don’t want!).
How worried do I need to be about Lyme disease?
On average, about 1 in 5 black-legged ticks in Ontario carry the bacterium (Borrelia burgdorferi) that causes Lyme disease (less in some areas, more in others). The vast majority of dogs that are exposed to Borrelia don’t get sick. In fact, only about 5% of dogs develop symptoms of Lyme disease: a lameness that shifts from one leg to another, fever, lethargy, and a loss of appetite. And they can be treated successfully with antibiotics. But left untreated, about 1% of those that get sick develop Lyme nephritis (an immune-mediated disease of the kidneys that’s often fatal). People can also develop serious complications of Lyme disease if it’s not treated. So if you develop flu-like symptoms (aches, pains, headaches) or a bulls-eye-like or other rash where you may have been bitten by a tick, please see your family physician. While Lyme disease is serious, it’s also entirely preventable if you take the appropriate precautions.
About the Diseases
Heartworm is a blood parasite that is spread by infected mosquitoes. It really is just what it sounds like: big worms ultimately occupy the big blood vessels surrounding the heart. As you can imagine, that is a very serious condition! It is almost invariably fatal if not treated – and while there IS effective treatment for the disease, it is serious, expensive, painful, and in and of itself, can be fatal. It is also a very insidious disease: infected mosquitoes inject microscopic baby worms with a bite, and over months-years, those little worms travel to their destination and grow to an impressive size (many centimeters long!). It is not until they are grown, and lodged in those blood vessels, that we see ANY clinical signs – and if they’re not detected until then, the dog has to undergo the treatment mentioned above. If we can detect an infection BEFORE that time – before we see any coughing, or shortness of breath, or exercise intolerance, or worse – it is MUCH easier to treat! And even better, with heartworm prevention, we can avoid that state of affairs altogether: your dog’s monthly preventive treat will kill any microscopic worms that may have been injected by a mosquito.
Most of us have heard of Lyme disease: it can cause big problems for people. If left undetected and untreated, Lyme can be damaging for pets as well. Symptoms of an active infection include limping, lethargy, lack of appetite, and depression. A small number of infected dogs can get into much more serious trouble, including kidney damage, and rarely, heart and nervous system disease. It’s important to be on top of this for our pets, but even MORE important, if you’re in an area where Lyme is present and you’re thinking about it for your dog – think about yourself too! Lyme can be much more serious and complicated for people than it is for dogs, and no one’s figured out ‘tick prevention’ for people yet!
Ehrlichia canis is an infection of the white blood cells. This affects the bone marrow function, including the production of white blood cells. Symptoms can include; loss of appetite, depression, lack of energy, runny eyes, runny nose, spontaneous nose bleeds, joint pain and lameness. Pets are not always symptomatic. Ehrlichia ewingi is an infection of blood cells that leads to joint pain and lameness, loss of energy and lack of appetite. Again, pets are not always symptomatic, but it is important to know if they’ve been exposed to these organisms – then, we have a very useful baseline were they to become unwell.
Anaplasma phagocytophilum and Anaplasma platys have similar symptoms, which can include: reluctance to move / stiffness, lethargy, fever, anorexia, and muscle pain.
As you can see, all of the above tick-borne diseases have similar symptoms. If left undetected and untreated, they can cause more serious internal problems. Regular testing allows us to catch things sooner and treat early. The most common and effective treatment for a dog with a tick-borne disease is Doxycycline, which is an oral antibiotic. The treatment for heartworm positive dogs can vary depending on the stage of the infection.
Equally important as regular blood testing, is doing our best to PREVENT these infections in the first place (then, testing confirms our success!). A variety of products are available, and there are two that we use more than any others at Lawrence Park Animal Hospital:
1. Heartgard Plus: This protects from heartworm disease and intestinal parasites
2. Nexgard: This prevents fleas, and kills ticks within 24 hours of attachment (which is the key – it takes at least 24 – 48 hours for a tick to transmit disease to its host).
There are other products as well, that may be chosen for various reasons according to individual patient needs.
Please call us to set up your dog’s 4DX test and prevention today!