Preventing tick-borne illness in your pets

It’s a common scene in Saskatchewan – you let your dog out for a romp in the woods and then spend the next half hour searching for ticks.

These little arachnids will happily make their home on anything with blood – you, your dog, your cat, your horse, your snake. No creature is safe from their bites.

And although no one likes to pull ticks off their pet, it’s important to do so as soon as possible. Immediate removal is the best way to decrease the chance of your pet contracting a tick-borne illness.

“Even if you’re not in an area where tick-borne disease is common, pets and people can still get sick so we want to try to prevent and avoid tick exposure as much as possible,” says Dr. Jordan Woodsworth, wellness veterinarian at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).

There are numerous tick-borne diseases in North America, including anaplasmosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but most prevalent in Canada is Lyme disease. Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, has been found in ticks collected primarily in southeastern Manitoba and southern Ontario and Quebec. Cases have also been reported in the Maritimes and sporadically in other parts of the country.

“Ticks have historically been most problematic in southern Canada, but they’re definitely creeping northward as our climate changes,” says Woodsworth.

Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses can cause a variety of health problems for your pet, and there are symptoms that owners can watch for.“Most commonly with tick-borne diseases, dogs will show generalized symptoms of illness – lethargy, loss of appetite, fever,” says Woodsworth.

With Lyme disease, owners of short-haired dogs may notice a rash. As well, affected dogs will often show symptoms of joint disease: limping, stiffness and reluctance to move.

Luckily, few pets that are infected with Lyme disease get sick, and simple tests are available for those that do become ill. Veterinarians can take a blood sample from your pet and quickly test it for tick-borne illness. Further tests may be run to confirm the diagnosis, after which treatment will begin.

Despite the availability of easy testing methods, preventing disease from occurring is the safest bet. Many tick prevention products are available over the counter or at your local veterinary clinic — but no product should be used without first consulting with your veterinarian.

“Even if you’re purchasing something over the counter, it’s a good idea to run it by your vet prior to using it,” says Woodsworth. She adds that all tick prevention products are different, and some may actually be harmful to other furry members of your family.

“A lot of the products we recommend are topical (products applied to the skin). For dogs we often use K9 Advantix®. The trick with this drug is that it can be very toxic to cats,” Woodsworth says.

Other available products include Revolution®: it’s effective, but the tick must bite the dog to be affected by the product. With Advantix®, ticks are repelled from attaching to the dogs in the first place.

Although a vaccine is available for Lyme disease, Woodsworth points out that it doesn’t necessarily provide protection for every animal and isn’t indicated in areas with low risk of disease. General tick control guidelines should focus on tick prevention and frequent tick checks as well as avoiding heavily wooded areas during tick season (May to October).

“For hunting dogs and others that are going to be in very heavily wooded or heavily grassed areas, it’s a conversation between the veterinarian and the owners as to which control methods are going to be best for each pet.”

But even if you’re using a tick prevention product on your pet, it’s still crucial to perform frequent tick checks. Checking for ticks can be difficult, especially in longhaired breeds, so it’s important to massage right down to the skin with your fingertips to feel for unwanted bugs.

“Pay special attention to areas around collars, around the tail, in the ears – those are places that ticks like to go,” says Woodsworth. “They like warm, moist areas.”

If you do find a tick, it’s important to remove it the correct way. Ticks carry diseases in their saliva, and doing things such as burning ticks or suffocating them with petroleum jelly could cause it to eject its salivary gland contents into the pet.

“At the clinic, we remove ticks using tweezers. We separate the skin so we can see the whole tick, grasp it as close to the skin as possible and pull straight out. A piece of skin may come along with the tick which generally means we’ve got the whole thing,” says Woodsworth.

Owners who are uncomfortable about removing ticks at home should ask their veterinarian for assistance.

Ticks that are found on your pet can be submitted to the WCVM with the dog’s name and location as well as your name and phone number. The ticks will be tested for transmissible disease as part of a study through the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Biology. Visit usask.ca/wcvm/veterinarians/equine_ticks.php for more information on submitting ticks for testing.

Article written by Melissa Cavanagh. Visit WCVM Today to read more WCVM news.