Considered a public health concern by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ticks are external parasites—arachnids that are related to spiders and mites—that live by feeding on the blood of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
There are more than 850 known tick species throughout the world; some are considered hard ticks and some are considered soft ticks. Ninety tick species have been identified in the United States, including deer ticks, lone star ticks, brown dog ticks, and others. Different tick species can transmit different tick-borne diseases to humans and animals.
A tick’s life
Most ticks go through four life stages:
- Larva — Usually about the size of a grain of sand, tick larvae have no wings and six legs.
- Nymph — A tick nymph has eight legs, no wings, and is about the size of a sesame seed.
- Adult — An unfed adult tick is approximately the size of a pencil eraser. They have eight legs and no wings.
Most adult female ticks will breed while on the host animal but will drop to the ground to lay eggs. Female ticks can lay several thousand eggs at a time.
Once a tick egg hatches, the tick larva will require a blood meal before it can molt (shed its outer skin) into a nymph. And, a tick nymph will need a blood meal before it can molt into an adult. Depending on the species of tick, the life cycle can take anywhere between 2 months and several years to complete.
Until they consume a blood meal, ticks are flat and oval. Once they feed, they become larger and engorged. Ticks can be brown, black, grayish-white, reddish-brown, or yellowish in color.
If an insect on you or your pet looks headless, it’s likely a tick. Ticks can bury their heads under the surface of the skin while feeding.
Who’s at risk of encountering a tick?
Ticks prefer areas that are wooded, brushy, or have tall weeds and grasses, so those who spend time outdoors in areas with high brush or grass are at increased risk of getting bitten by a tick. Ticks will climb up the tall grasses and wait for a suitable host to pass by close enough for them to latch on. Ticks can sense when a host is near through rising carbon dioxide levels and body heat.
Ticks in all active life stages—larval, nymph, and adult—are capable of biting and therefore are capable of spreading tick-borne disease.
Some tick-borne diseases in the U.S. include:
- Lyme disease (the most common tick-borne disease in the U.S.)
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever
- Tick paralysis
- Cytauxzoonosis (cats)
- Alpha-Gal allergy (developing an allergy to meat after being bitten by a lone star tick)
- Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness
- Tick-Borne Relapsing Fever
Preventing tick disease
Tick disease can be deadly, but it is preventable. We recommend Bravecto every 3 months, which is available in chewable form or as a topical that can be applied to the skin.
When the temperatures rise above 50 degrees and you’re spending more time outdoors, be sure to check your pets and your family for ticks daily. Reduce tick habitat in your yard by keeping grasses well-groomed and weeds at bay. If you find a tick on your dog, remove it immediately, because tick disease can be transmitted within 24 hours of a bite.
How to remove a tick
- Gather your supplies, which include:
- Rubbing alcohol
- Jar (with lid)
- Antiseptic wipes or spray
- Get help if you can. Your pet may get nervous when you start poking and prodding with your tweezers. Have someone help you hold him in place and use a long-lasting treat—like a frozen peanut butter popsicle—to distract him and keep him calm.
- Grab the tick with your tweezers as close to your dog’s skin as possible and pull out the tick using steady pressure and a straight motion.
- DO NOT twist or jerk the tick out, because you don’t want to leave the tick’s head and/or mouthparts embedded under your dog’s skin.
- DO NOT squeeze the tick too hard or crush it because it may be full of blood.
- Examine the tick after removing it to be sure the head and mouthparts were removed. If not, call our office immediately so we can remove the remainder of the tick.
- Kill the tick by placing it in your jar with some rubbing alcohol and putting the lid on the jar. Keep the dead tick in the jar in case your pet gets sick so we can determine what kind of tick bit him.
- Clean the bite by using an antiseptic spray or wipes. Check it regularly for several days—if you notice increased irritation, redness, or swelling, call our office immediately because it could be infected.
- Reward your pet with a special treat and praise him for being a trooper during the tick removal.
Prevention is always the best medicine, so be sure to talk with us about protecting your pet from ticks and tick-borne disease.