Ticks. The name alone sounds ominous. These blood-sucking bugs are the scourge of dog owners everywhere. To be so small, ticks can cause a heck of a lot of damage, from skin irritations and sore spots to full-blown diseases that can pose a serious threat to your dog’s health.
I remember having to figure out how to get rid of ticks that were attacking my poor dog Juno (an Alaskan Husky and Collie mix), and let me tell you, it wasn’t a pretty sight. The good news is that I did manage to eliminate those greedy little parasites, and my sweet dog is back to normal now!
Living near wooded areas for most of my life, I’m all too familiar with ticks, but perhaps many of you are unfamiliar with what these sinister bugs are, as well as how they operate. Well, I have put together a list of some of the most frequently asked questions about ticks for your reference. Enjoy!
Q: What Is A Tick?
A: Ticks are small, parasitic arachnids (i.e., they have 8 legs, like spiders) that mainly feed on the blood of mammals and birds, but they have also been known to attack amphibians and reptiles (greedy little critters!).
They are normally reddish brown to dark brown in color, and their bodies are quite flat, similar in appearance to a watermelon seed. To stay alive, ticks basically attach themselves to a host, and once they’re fixed in place, they don’t let go until they have completely engorged themselves with a “blood meal”.
Not only are ticks dangerous to dogs in terms of their parasitic qualities, but they can also be vectors for various diseases that can be harmful or even fatal to your four-legged friend. In every sense of the word, a tick is a parasite, and if your dog happens to get bitten by a tick, you would be well-advised to remove it immediately!
Q: Are There Different Types Of Ticks?
A: Believe it or not, there are more than 850 different types of tick species in the world, which is a harrowing thought! All ticks can be loosely categorized into two main categories: Hard and soft.
The hard ticks (known as Ixoxids), have a hard exterior shell (hence the name), and they are slow feeders, typically taking several days in order to finish their “blood feast”.
Soft ticks (also known as Argasids) have a leathery, more elastic type of shell, and they actually blow up like a balloon when engorged with blood. Soft ticks feed on their host at a faster rate than their hard counterparts, typically being able to satiate themselves within only hours of latching onto their host.
Q: What Is The Difference Between Fleas And Ticks?
A: Fleas and ticks are both parasites, and many medicines designed to get rid of parasites are formulated to get rid of both fleas and ticks. That being said, there are quite a few differences between fleas and ticks that should be noted.
For one, fleas can jump (and they do it well), but ticks can neither jump nor fly. Also, fleas are insects (6 legs), while ticks are arachnids (8 legs).
Ticks are significantly larger than fleas, and they remain in place while they’re feeding, unlike fleas that tend to skip around on their host.
In addition, ticks do not cause any itching when they bite, which makes them a little more dangerous than fleas, because there are less visible symptoms on display from tick bites versus flea bites. In fact, your dog may not react at all (e.g., no scratching, shaking, etc.) to a tick bite, which means that those little critters can basically feast on your dog’s blood undetected!
Q: What Is The Life Cycle Of A Tick?
A: Ticks are holometabolouos creatures, which means that they go through a four-stage life cycle: Egg, larva, pupa, and adult (imago). As with most other creatures that undergo this metamorphosis, the eggs don’t really resemble the grown-up version of the bug at all; in fact, tick eggs look like clusters of tiny golden-brown poppy seeds. It isn’t until they get to the larva stage that they begin to take on some of the visual characteristics of the adult tick.
Adult female ticks can lay up to 20,000 eggs, which is insane when you really think about it. Ticks typically mate on their host (that’s nasty all by itself), and once they have “done the deed”, the female tick then partakes of a blood meal in order to begin the process of developing the eggs.
Ixodid ticks stand out from the rest of the tick species in this regard, because they don’t mate on their host; instead, the female tick will lay eggs in leaf litter or soil once she has become engorged with blood and drops off her host. One interesting tidbit in the midst of this somewhat disgusting procession of facts is that when ticks are in their larva stage, they only have three pairs of legs, which would make them appear to be insects. It is only when they grow to their adult stage that their final pair of legs fully develops.
The larva-stage ticks are also known as “seed ticks”, because that’s exactly how they look – like tiny, dark sesame seeds with legs. These seed ticks must find a host in order to get the blood meal they need to molt to the next stage of their development, which is the pupa (nymph). Once they are at this stage, they must again find a host and procure another blood meal so that that they can finally develop into an adult tick.
When you think about everything it takes for a tick to thrive, it seems like the chances for survival for these creatures is slim, but somehow they have managed to avoid extinction all these years. They’re obviously very adept at finding hosts! Hey, that leads me to our next question…
Q: How Do Ticks Find Their Host?
A: Ticks cannot jump, fly or move very fast period, so finding a host to latch onto is a pretty amazing feat in and of itself. They use a process known as “questing” in order to target their host, which basically boils down to being in the right place at the right time. Contrary to popular opinion, ticks don’t actually live in trees; rather, they live in the soil (or at ground level), and then crawl their way around to better vantage points such as tall grass, low-hanging tree branches, shrubs, leaf piles, leaves of plants, and basically any other type of vegetation that gives them easy access to a host that happens to be passing by.
With what seems to be an almost supernatural level of sensitivity, ticks can detect shadows, vibrations, changes in CO2 levels, air currents, odors, temperature changes, and other environmental cues by way of a special sensory organ in their leg known as “Haller’s organ”. The information gathered from this organ lets them know that a host is drawing near, at which time they position themselves to attack when the host passes by. If your dog happens to be foraging through some thick brush or other vegetation, it is relatively easy for a tick to find its way onto your pup, and once they’re on, they will crawl to the most advantageous spot in order to begin feeding.
I remember one time when I was in school, we had gone outside for recess, and the playground we went to every day was near a wooded area. When I came back inside, I felt something tickling my face. As it turned out, one of my friends told me that a tick was crawling up my face, probably heading to the top of my head, where they love to settle in and have a good meal. Thankfully, my teacher was able to get the tick off my face before it could bite me!
But this just goes to show you how easy it is for ticks to find their way onto a host, and do it with stealth. Lastly, I did want to mention one cool fact I found out about ticks: When they’re engaging in questing behavior, there are times when ticks come up empty-handed (or empty-legged, I guess?).
If they are unsuccessful in finding a host, they will then crawl back down to the ground level, where they can rehydrate themselves and then start the questing process all over again. Ticks will continue this process as many times as it takes, and they’re able to survive for quite a long time without finding a host. In fact, some ticks can live up to 20 years! This probably explains why ticks are still around today, even in light of the very delicate process they require in order to find a host. Simply put, they’re some tough little bugs!
Q: How Do Ticks Feed On Their Host?
A: I’ll go ahead and put this out there now: Prepare to be grossed out. There’s nothing pretty about a tick’s feeding habits, and you’ll see why in just a little bit. For starters, ticks have specialized mouthparts that are designed for parasitic activity. One such part is known as the hypostome, which is basically shaped like a tiny harpoon. The tick uses this mouthpart to make a tiny incision in the skin, and then they insert the hypostome into this hole like a straw, where they will then begin feeding on the blood of their host. This process of feeding on blood is known as “hematophagy”, which comes from the Greek words “haima” (blood) and “phagein” (to eat).
During feeding, ticks become quite literally attached to their host, because they secrete a substance that acts as a bonding agent to keep their mouth parts affixed to the insertion point. This substance essentially acts like a natural form of cement, as it hardens after being secreted. If you’re not grossed out by now, I’ve got one that might send you over the edge: Ticks also secrete saliva into the bite area in order to dissolve any solid substances (e.g., broken skin, etc.), so that all of their food is converted to liquid form for easy digestion. This saliva contains potent amounts of protozoa and bacteria, making ticks some of the most effective vectors for disease on the planet.
Lastly, here’s a gag-worthy bonus fact: Ticks will feed until they become absolutely engorged with blood, and their bodies expand accordingly to accommodate their blood meal. When full, some ticks can swell up to the size of a grape! Once they have become satiated, they will detach from their host and drop back to the ground, where they will either lay eggs or just hang out until it’s time for another blood meal later on.
Q: How Long Do Ticks Remain On A Dog?
A: Ticks are greedy little suckers, so they will feed on your dog until they’re completely stuffed. These feeding sessions can last a few hours, but some can go on for more than two weeks at a time. This can become quite dangerous for your dog, because don’t forget – when a tick is sucking blood out of your dog, in a sense they’re draining the life right out of your pup. I don’t mean to sound so crude, but it’s important for all of us to see just how serious of a problem ticks can be.
During feeding sessions, ticks can take in up to eight milliliters of blood, sometimes consuming up to 100 times their body weight of this vital fluid! If one tick can do that much damage, imagine having to deal with a tick infestation on your dog. The combined feeding efforts of several ticks are enough to produce symptoms of anemia in your pooch, which is highly dangerous; for this reason, the sooner you can detect a tick on your four-legged friend, the better.
Q: How Do I Check My Dog For Ticks?
A: The short answer would be “as thoroughly as possible”, but let me give you a breakdown of what that means. You have to be willing to take the time to thoroughly inspect your dog’s fur, down to the skin, over every section of your dog’s body. If you have a long-haired dog like I do, this will definitely require some patience, as you will need to part the hair to the skin very methodically, section by section, until you have covered every area.
If you want to do a somewhat quick checkup, you can use your sense of touch to feel for any unusual bumps or lumps that may require closer inspection, and if you find any, then you zero in on the area in question. Also be sure to check for ticks on your dog’s belly, behind their ears, on their neck, and any other little nooks and crannies where it’s easy for those little bloodsuckers to hide.
Q: Do Tick Bites Itch Like Flea Bites Do?
A: No, and that’s part of the danger of these nasty little bugs. As I mentioned earlier, they can go undetected for hours, days or even weeks, because their bites don’t produce any irritation or allergic dermatitis like flea bites do. Not only that, but ticks are even able to avoid detection when they’re first attaching themselves to their host by secreting a substance on the skin that acts as an anesthetic (i.e., a numbing agent), keeping the host from feeling the initial bite. So these little critters are quite skillful at doing their dirty work!
Q: What Types Of Diseases Do Ticks Transmit?
A: Keeping in line with my whole “ticks are disgusting” theme, I definitely want to mention the different types of diseases that ticks can transmit. The transmission happens by way of pathogens that are transferred into the blood when the tick bites. Here are some of the most common diseases that ticks can spread:
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever: This is one of the most commonly known tick-borne diseases, but perhaps the most lethal. Also known as “Blue Fever”, Rocky Mountain spotted fever is classified as a rickettsial illness, which means that it’s a type of bacterial disease. It causes fevers, stiffness, muscle spasms, skin lesions, and neurological problems. A typical bout with Rocky Mountain spotted fever can sideline your dog for about two weeks, but in more extreme cases, the disease can be fatal.
- Ehrlichiosis: This is a bacterial infection that kills white blood cells and suppresses the immune system. Primary symptoms are loss of appetite, fever, lethargy, stiffness, joint pain, weight loss, anemia, and shortness of breath. Although dog fatalities from ehrlichiosis are not common (because the disease is treatable), they have been reported.
- Lyme disease: Another well-known tick-borne illness, Lyme disease is a bacterial disease that is quite complex in nature. In humans, Lyme disease can produce a range of symptoms including skin rashes or redness, headaches, tiredness, fever, joint pain, heart palpitations, neck stiffness, or even the loss of mobility in facial muscles. In dogs, Lyme disease often produces symptoms such as lameness, swollen lymph nodes, swelling in the joints, lethargy, fever, and loss of appetite. In order for a tick to inject the bacteria that causes Lyme disease into its host, it must remain attached for at least 36 to 48 hours.
- Babesiosis: This is a parasitic disease not unlike malaria, and produces symptoms in your dog such as loss of appetite, lack of energy, fever, enlarged abdomen, colored urine, and pale gums.
Suffice it to say, ticks are nothing to play around with. The unfortunate thing about it is that there’s no real way to know what kind of nasty bacteria or disease a tick might be carrying, and it only takes one tick to transmit who knows what kind of disease. This is why you should never treat it lightly when you discover a tick on your dog; you need to remove that little sucker immediately! Speaking of removing ticks.
Q: How Do I Remove A Tick On My Dog?
A: There are all kinds of tick removal techniques being espoused on the Web, but you have to be careful not to follow any old advice you see, otherwise you could do more harm than good to your pooch. For this information, I deferred to the Humane Society – obvious leaders in the field of animal care – just to ensure that I wasn’t doing anything out of line. So here’s what I gathered from their information archives:
- First of all, you’re going to need some equipment and tools to get the job done. Here are the basic items you’ll need to be fully prepared for your tick removal mission:
- A pair of gloves (NEVER handle ticks without gloves!)
- A clean pair of tweezers, or a store-bought tick remover. Either one is fine.
- An antiseptic of some kind, such as hydrogen peroxide
- Isopropyl alcohol
- A small container or shallow bowl
- With gloved hands, take the tweezers and grasp the part of the tick that is as close as possible to your dog’s skin without actually clipping the skin. This can be tough, because ticks burrow their heads into the skin of their host (another one of the 1,001 reasons why they’re disgusting), so if you’re not careful, you can actually “decapitate” the tick when you try to detach it from your dog. Not only is this a totally gag-worthy moment, but it leaves the tick’s head in your dog’s skin, which can lead to an infection.
- With a firm but not crushing grip, pull the tick straight out, avoiding any twisting or herky-jerky movements. This will ensure that you’re doing as little damage to your pup’s skin as possible. Whatever you do, don’t squeeze the tick so hard that it bursts, as this can release all kinds of disgusting bacteria and pathogens onto your dog’s skin! No Bueno!
- Now drop the tick into a small container or shallow bowl that contains the isopropyl alcohol. This will immediately kill the tick. Make sure to date the container, and observe your dog carefully over the next few days/weeks to see if he/she is displaying any signs of a tick-borne illness. If so, bring the tick with you when you visit the veterinarian, so that he/she can identify and/or run tests on the tick.
- Clean your pup’s skin with the antiseptic, making sure to irrigate the area well. Clean your tweezers with the alcohol, and wash your hands, too. Congratulations – you have successfully removed a tick!
- Keep an eye out on your dog for any odd symptoms, and check back on the bite area to ensure that no infections begin to develop. If you have cause for concern, definitely pay a visit to the vet.
The Final Word
Okay, you now have more than enough information to help you understand the type of foe you’re dealing with. Keep these questions and answers on hand any time you need to refer back to them, and do your best to keep your four-legged friend tick-free!