Do you know all you need to know about ticks and the harm that they can cause?
We think about ticks as itchy, gross, little nuisances, but they can actually be very dangerous to your health and the health of your pet. The more you know about these tiny terrors, the better you can protect your dog.
What are ticks and where do they live?
Ticks are parasites that attach themselves to the outside of animals, including dogs and people. Like little vampires, they survive by drinking the blood of their hosts. The tick cuts a tiny hole in the skin of its host and then extracts the blood until it’s well, as full as a tick.
There are two different families of ticks that affect dogs–hard ticks and soft ticks. The hard ticks are the most important group in North America. They are arachnids, like spiders, and most stages have eight legs, a tiny head, and a large round body that often expands when it fills with its host’s blood.1
Ticks can be found all over the world. They prefer higher humidity levels and temperate climates. In unfavorable weather, ticks retreat to sheltered microclimates like leaf litter where they wait for conditions to improve. Forests are a particularly favorite habitat as they provide both an ideal environment and plenty of juicy critters for snacking.
One good sign you’re in tick country is the presence of deer. For some species of ticks, deer are like a Greyhound bus. One single deer can produce 500,000 tick larvae a year.2,3 And since a tick can lay thousands of eggs at a time4, you can see how the tick population can grow pretty fast.
Ticks: Coming soon to an animal near you
There was once a misguided notion that ticks were only a problem for those who lived in rural or wooded areas — and most of us were unlikely to encounter them. That view has significantly changed.
Ticks are more numerous, found in more geographic areas and infecting more hosts than in the past. There are a number of reasons for this growth:5
- Changes in agricultural practice. As farms have changed, so have the habitats of the tick, causing it to adjust to new lifestyles and seek out other environments.
- Decreased application of pesticides. A number of factors that have led to the decrease in environmental application of pesticides. The result of less pesticide is more pests, including ticks.
- Natural climate fluctuations. Even if we set aside the debate about the causes of climate change, all agree that climate can and does change — and ticks have learned to change with it. Modern climate changes have greatly expanded the habitats for ticks. Local weather patterns can also affect the hosts which ticks feed on,5 leading to an increase in tick populations.
- Wildlife conservation, relocation and restocking, or unchecked growth. While it’s good that we’re working to save endangered species, we’re ignoring other species whose populations are growing too fast. For example, populations of white-tailed deer and wild turkey have dramatically increased over the last century.5 Both are excellent hosts for ticks. More hosts, more ticks, more tick problems.
- Reforestation. While it’s important to replenish the trees we cut down to reduce carbon dioxide levels, the increase in forested land provide more ideal habitats for ticks.
- Urban sprawl into wildlife habitats. As cities spread into what were once open and rural areas, people come into increased contact with ticks and their hosts.
Keep in mind that not all flea products are effective against ticks. It’s important that you talk to your veterinarian to see which product is right for your dog.
1. Soneshine DE. Life Cycles of Ticks, In: Soneshine DE, ed, Biology of Ticks, vol. 1, New York: Oxford University Press; 51-66, 1991.
2. Paddock CD and Yabsley MJ. Ecological havoc, the rise of white-tailed deer, and the emergence of Amblyomma americanum-associated zoonoses in the United States. Curr Microbial Immunol 2007;315:2879-324.
3. Wilson ML, Litwin TS, Gavin TA, et al. Host-depending differences in feeding and reproduction of Ixodes dammini (Acari: ixodidae). J Med Entomol. 1990;27:945-954.
4. Blagburn BL, et al. Biology, treatment and control of flea and tick infestations. Vet Clin Small Anim. 2009:39:1173-1200.
5. Dryden MW. Flea and tick control in the 21st century, challenges and opportunities. Vet Derm. 2009;20:435-440.