The furry patients of Lucerne Veterinary Hospital are collecting more ticks than ever before, said Dr. Chris A. Miles, a veterinarian at the practice who has devoted a great deal of time to learning about tick-borne diseases.
“This has just been a bad tick year — really bad,” Miles said. “We’ve seen way more ticks on patients than in the past.”
Fortunately for the dogs and cats of Maine, the veterinarians are fighting back with a number of effective treatments that repel and kill ticks before they can transmit harmful diseases.
“The newer oral products are very safe and effective,” said Miles, who now uses an oral treatment on her own dogs and has noticed that it’s been working well. “They require a tick to bite to kill it, but once it bites the dog, it dies very quickly — in 1 or 2 hours. So they don’t have time to transmit the disease.”
Topical treatments, placed directly on a dog’s skin, have also proven effective in repelling and killing ticks. However, it’s important to purchase these treatments straight from a veterinarian, Miles said. Many stores carry outdated products that, as a rule, tend to be more toxic than the products prescribed by veterinarians.
More tick-borne diseases popping up in Maine
Lyme disease is the most common and well-known disease transmitted by ticks in Maine, but that’s not the only tick-borne disease people should be on the lookout for, Miles said.
“We’re in an area where we are seeing other tick diseases pretty regularly,” Miles said.
Miles and fellow veterinarian Dr. Sophie Borodic recently led a presentation on ticks for the Penobscot Valley Kennel Club. The following is one of the handouts they gave to the audience on the dangerous ticks currently found in Maine and the diseases they are known to transmit to humans and pets:
The handout covers four ticks that carry and transmit diseases — the Lone Star tick, black-legged tick, brown dog tick and American dog tick — however, there are 14 different tick species found in Maine, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Tick Identification Lab. To learn about all of these species, or to submit a tick to be identified, visit extension.umaine.edu/ipm/tickid.
“If I find a tick on my dog, what do I do?”
I found myself asking that very question about a week ago when I found an engorged tick latched onto my dog Oreo’s neck. While it wasn’t the first time I’ve seen a tick on Oreo, it was the first time the tick had been attached long enough for it to become engorged, its body full of my dog’s blood. I felt guilty for not having noticed the tick earlier, but there was no use beating myself up over it.
“I think the best thing is do is to remove the tick safely,” Miles said.
Fortunately, I knew at least that much. I knew it would be important to remove the tick as soon as possible, reducing the risk that it would transmit a disease to Oreo. (Lyme disease can be transmitted after a tick is attached for 12-24 hours, though less time is required in some cases.)
Removing a tick — this is where a lot of people mess up. There are a lot of myths out there about the best ways to remove a tick, and I’ve heard about some of these creative methods straight from my family and friends. These strange (and sometimes dangerous) procedures include painting the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly or using heat, such as a lit match, to make the tick detach from the skin. Those are all bad ideas.
The safest way to remove a tick is simply to pull it out. Use tweezers or a tick removal gadget such as a tick spoon, Miles said, and hold onto the tick near the skin, then pull gently until the tick comes loose.
“When they attach, [ticks] put their little snouts into the skin and secrete a chemical that glues them to the skin, as well as an anticoagulant so the blood doesn’t clot, and something to depress the immune system of host,” Miles said. “This causes irritation, and for some dogs, it causes quite a little nodule.”
Separating Oreo’s short white fur the best I could with my fingers, I grasped the tick near his skin with tweezers and pulled, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically. The tick came out, but as it did, its engorged body burst, and I dropped the tweezers in disgust.
I thought the tick bursting was just gross, but as it turns out, it was dangerous, too.
“If people have any cuts or scratches on their fingers and the tick bursts open, that’s one way a person can get exposed to Lyme disease themselves during tick removal,” Miles said.
One way to prevent a tick from bursting on your skin is to sandwich the tick’s body in tape before removing it, Miles suggested.
“You’ll probably leave tiny bits of the snout in skin,” said Miles. “These will just fester out like a splinter.”
After you remove the tick, wash the bite area and your hands, then flush the tick down the toilet. If you aren’t near a restroom, place it in a container or wrap it in tape. Crushing the tick’s body to kill it as you would other insects can simply put you at more risk of spreading any disease it might carry.
Testing and seeking treatment
After disposing of the engorged tick, I thought I might need to bring Oreo into a veterinary clinic to get him tested for tick-borne diseases, but Miles said that wouldn’t be effective.
“It takes a period of time after exposure for an animal test to become positive,” she explained. “And that time is pretty variable. It could be a couple of weeks or months.”
Dogs are typically not treated for a tick-borne disease unless they start exhibiting symptoms of the disease, Miles said. For Lyme disease, the most common symptoms are fever, lymph node enlargement, and a stiff movements (for example, if a dog is slow getting up stairs). However, other tick-borne diseases may cause abnormal bruising or bleeding (from the gums or in their urine), she said.
“For the most part, tick diseases are treatable if identified early,” Miles said.
For example, Lyme disease in dogs (and in humans) is treated with a regimen of antibiotics.
“An exception is if Lyme disease causes damage to the kidneys,” Miles said. “That’s almost always fatal … and for cats, cytoauxzoonosis, transmitted from the Lone Star tick that is being seen in Maine — especially on the Blue Hill peninsula — that particular disease is often fatal, and often so quickly that people don’t even recognize that there’s a problem.”
Interestingly, cats don’t tend to pick up ticks as frequently as dogs, Miles said. Lyme disease is very uncommon in cats. And of the cats that are infected, many don’t develop symptoms.
For information about proper removal of ticks and treatment of tick-borne diseases, check of the Lucerne Veterinary Hospital tick fact sheet at www.lucernevet.com/docs/tick-fact-sheet.pdf.
Preventing tick bites in the first place
To reduce the presence of ticks in your yard, the most effective thing to do is keep your lawn mowed, and clean up leaf and brush piles, Miles said. Ticks tend to cling to low-lying vegetation and reach out their limbs in search for a host (a behavior known as “questing”).
“There are some kinds of yard products, but truthfully, I’m not really into them because I worry they are environmentally insensitive,” Miles said.
For humans, it’s important to cover as much skin as possible when spending time outdoors. Ticks are easier to see on lighter clothing.
The best practice is conducting multiple tick checks after spending time outdoors, on both you and your dog. Look for ticks, but also feel for them. And remember, ticks can as tiny as a pencil point.
There’s simply too much to cover about ticks in one blog post, so here are a few great resources for identifying ticks, learning about tick-borne diseases, how to perform tick checks and the different products you can try to repel ticks:
- Centers for Disease Control website on ticks: www.cdc.gov/ticks/diseases
- Tick Identification Lab in Maine: http://extension.umaine.edu/ipm/tickid/
- Maine Medical Center Research Institute website on Lyme and other vector-borne diseases: www.maine.gov/dhhs/mecdc/infectious-disease/epi/vector-borne/lyme/tick-id.shtml
- TickEncounter Resource Center, University of Rhode Island: www.tickencounter.org
- Lyme Disease Association, Inc.: www.lymediseaseassociation.org
- Maine Division of Infectious Disease website on ticks: www.maine.gov/dhhs/mecdc/infectious-disease/epi/vector-borne/lyme/tick-id.shtml