Now that the weather is getting cold and the mosquitoes and flies are gone, you may think that there is no reason to worry about taking your dog outside for a refreshing hike in the woods. But the ticks are still out and they are hungry! In fact, October through April is the most risky time of year for dogs to become infected with Lyme disease because the adult ticks are active and feeding. We talk to clients about this frequently, and it seems to be a common misconception that it’s okay to slack off on your dogs tick protection after the first hard frost.
Deer ticks are the perfect vector for several infectious diseases including Lyme disease and Anaplasmosis. They can feed on mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, and because they require multiple blood meals during their life cycle they are very adept at carrying disease causing organisms from one host to another. Understanding their life cycle is the key to preventing tick exposure and tick- borne disease.
Deer tick eggs hatch in the spring, and the tiny larvae and nymphs feed on birds and mice as they develop. It takes about a year for them to go through the development stages to adulthood, and by the following fall the adult female ticks are hungrily looking for a blood meal. Adults begin feeding around the first frost in October, and all winter they will become active any time the temperature is over 35 degrees and there is no snow cover. It is likely that around 50% of adult deer ticks are carrying the Lyme disease organism. So don’t be surprised if you see deer ticks during a January thaw, and be sure to keep your dog protected!
The best way to remove a tick from your dog is to pull it off. Applying petroleum jelly or nail polish does not work well and getting ticks off within 24 hours of attachment helps prevent transmission of disease. If the mouth parts of the tick don’t come out completely don’t panic. There may be some skin irritation but eventually they will work their way out on their own.
Ticks do not jump or drop out of trees. They find their host by “questing” where they sit on grass or low shrubs and hold their front legs out waiting for you or your dog to brush by. Deer ticks don’t survive very long inside a home. They are very susceptible to drying out and require a humid environment, therefore we see more of them in rainy years and near wetland areas.
The Lyme disease vaccine for dogs is safe and very effective, and we recommend it for dogs in our practice. There are many effective topical and oral flea and tick products which should be used all year round. Nothing is a 100% guarantee against tick borne infections but prevention and awareness can make a big difference!