Gazette Vet: Spring Is Tick Time!

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By John Andersen, DVM

They’re coming. They’re here. They’ve never really left! Ticks! Ugh!

After my 38 years on this planet, I am still creeped out by ticks. There is just something inherently spooky and unwholesome about them that gives me chills. Unfortunately, I now have good reason for my worry.

Growing up in Virginia, I remember getting ticks (and hating them), but never heard of tick-borne illnesses. I’m sure they were present, but there is no doubt that tick-borne diseases are on the rise and seem to be here to stay. And guess what, central Virginia—we’re in a hot zone of tick diseases that affect both people and our pets.

Lyme Disease is now an endemic disease (meaning it’s well-established) in central Virginia, but several other tick diseases now call central Virginia home—Ehrlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, as well as a few other less common ones. I wish I was writing this just to scare people, but it’s true—get used to it, ticks are bad. The American Dog tick, the Black-legged (deer) tick, the Lone Star tick, and the Brown dog tick all grace our environment and all are bad.

As I say this, I also think that fear of ticks should in no way decrease your (and your pet’s) time outside in the woods and fields. Ticks can attach themselves into your skin in just minutes, but fortunately it takes quite a bit longer than that for them to spread any disease they may carry. Though exact times may vary, it is estimated it takes 24 hours of attachment for Lyme Disease, Ehrlichiosis, and Anaplasmosis to spread, while it may take only 4-8 hours for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever to be transmitted. This translates into: ‘Go out into the woods and play without worry, but just be sure to do a really good tick check on you and your dog when you get home.’

Ticks truly are a year-round threat in Virginia. They are active when there is snow on the ground—but there are just not as many and not as many people are outside. Spring is definitely the worst time of year for ticks, as this is when hordes of eggs hatch and release nymphs, or “seed” ticks—the really tiny ticks that are sometimes as small as the period at the end of this sentence. These little buggers are just as capable of spreading the same tick diseases, but obviously are much harder to detect on your dog, let alone yourself.

So, clearly we’re all doing to die of tick disease and so are our pets, right? What’s a person to do?

Fortunately, there are several safe and effective tick preventatives for dogs. I am the first to say that yes, you will be putting a chemical on or into your dog or cat to kill ticks (and fleas). I don’t love this and I am very conscious of any chemicals we use on ourselves or on our child. However, my dogs are active. And very hairy. And I know that despite a really good tick check, I may miss ticks. Easily. Regularly. And my wife will freak out if we get fleas in our house. So I use and recommend to my clients to use a flea and tick preventative as the “lesser of all evils.”

Fortunately, there are several very effective flea and tick preventatives and a few newer ones that have excellent safety profiles. Frontline and K9 Advantix have been out forever and have truly excellent safety records. These are both topical medications that are applied onto the skin over the pet’s neck and which spread over their hair coat. Nexgard is a promising new oral flea and tick preventative that has been FDA-approved and avoids the skin/hair residue. It is important to note that NONE of these medications repel ticks. There is, in my opinion, no safe medication that actually repels ticks from your pet’s coat. These medications kill ticks after being on the pet for several hours. Since ticks will often attach within 30 minutes, it is very normal to still see ticks attached to your dogs even though you recently applied a preventative. However these ticks should ideally die and fall off prior to being able to feed and transmit disease. Still, there is no substitute for a good tick check after a romp in the fields.

I wish I could name a few good home remedies to keep ticks off your pets, but after 12 years in practice, unfortunately I haven’t seen any. And believe me, I would love nothing more than to tell you that giving your pet garlic would keep fleas and ticks away—the inner hippie in me yearns to give advice like this! But we regularly see these home remedies fail, as these pests are determined to live, and they must find blood meals to live.

So as you venture out into the woods with your pets this spring, have a great time and enjoy the best time of year to be in Virginia. But when you get home, be sure to spend some time checking yourself and your pets in good lighting. Consider changing your clothes, and don’t hesitate to check yourself and your friend later in the evening in case you missed one. If you do notice a tick bite that looks old, or your dog is acting sick and feverish several weeks after getting a tick bite, be sure to contact your veterinarian for advice. Happy trails!