If you are reading this, your dog has likely had an unfortunate encounter with a tick. As you are probably already aware, ticks are tiny and silent parasites that feed on the blood of mammals.
Tick bites can be itchy, annoying, and just plain gross which is reason enough to want to be able to identify and remove these little creatures, it is the fact that they can carry and transmit serious diseases to the host animal that makes them so concerning for dog owners.
If you would like to know what a tick looks like when it is on a dog, or you are already aware of their appearance and want to know more about what to do if you find one or more on your dog’s skin, you have come to the right place. We will describe what ticks look like, what sorts of diseases they can infect your dog with, how you can remove them, and, finally, what you can do to prevent your dog from being bit by ticks in the future.
So, What are Ticks and What Do They Look Like?
As mentioned above, ticks are small parasitic creatures. They usually lay dormant, waiting for a host species to walk past them. When a potential host, like a dog, brushes by a tick, it can attach to the host animal’s skin with its mouthparts.
Ticks attach themselves to host animals so they can feed on their blood. This nourishment allows them to lay their eggs, so the next generation of ticks can be born.
Ticks can be difficult to spot. They are very tiny before they feed. Before ticks have consumed the blood of a host animal, they are only a few millimeters in diameter. Once they have been attached to an animal long enough and have ingested enough blood, the tick’s body can grow to several centimeters in diameter. Over several days, the tick’s engorged body can grow to many times its original size.
An unfed tick will look like a small spider, while a fully fed tick will look like a small spider with a large, smooth, and shiny seed attached to its rear.
Different Types of Ticks
In most cases, ticks are brown, but different types of ticks can look slightly different.
While you and your dog will want to avoid all types of ticks, there are different species. The specific types of ticks you encounter will mostly depend on where you live. The truth is, most ticks look similar, which is why it can sometimes take an expert to determine which type of tick has bit your dog.
Just some of the types of ticks found in the United States that are known to bite and transmit diseases to dogs include:
- American Dog Tick
- Blacklegged Tick, which is also known as the Deer Tick
- Groundhog Tick
- Lone Star tick
- Pacific Coast Tick
- Rocky Mountain Wood Tick
- Soft Tick
- Western Blacklegged Tick
Ticks are often confused with insects but differ in that they have eight legs rather than six. Ticks are actually arachnids, and they are related to spiders, mites, and even scorpions.
As mentioned, North American varieties of ticks are usually brown and are composed of two fused body parts – the head and the body. Every type of tick has an expandable body, which helps them hold the blood they suck from a host animal.
The head is relatively small and features protruding mouth parts, which almost look like long and straight fangs. Each type of tick also has a round, hard shell located behind its head and called the scutum.
Depending on the species of tick, the scutum may vary in color or pattern. It is these differences in coloration that identify the species of tick. The mouthparts, which is what the tick uses to lodge into and attach to the skin of a host, can also help identify the species, as they differ in length and shape from one species to the next.
Using scutum color and mouthpart indicators to identify the species is important as different types of ticks carry different diseases.
What Happens When a Tick Attaches to a Host
In most cases, when a tick attaches to a host animal, the tick’s mouthparts and head are embedded in the host’s skin, which is why only the scutum and soft belly are visible.
As the tick feeds, its soft belly fills with blood and expands. As the tick becomes engorged from the host’s blood, its previously soft belly grows and hardens. The engorged tick will often turn grey or, in some cases, a different shade of brown or beige.
Depending on how much blood it consumes, an engorged tick can measure up to 5cm in length. Once the tick has sucked enough blood from the host, it will intentionally drop off the animal so it can lay eggs.
Ticks can stay attached to a dog and continue sucking its blood for several days before falling off. In most tick bite situations, the dog and its owner will never even realize the tick was there.
Why Are Ticks So Difficult to Spot on a Dog?
Most of the time, ticks are difficult to discover on the skin of a dog. Most dog breeds have thick fur, which disguises and conceals the tick. Many people will mistake an attached tick for a wart, skin tag, or growth. The only part of the tick you can see when attached is its smooth scutum, which sits flush with the dog’s skin.
Since the engorged tick belly is usually smooth and round and either grey or beige, most people do not notice them or just assume it is a part of the dog’s skin.
When you feel a tick, you can usually move the belly around, but they are firmly attached, as the head and mouthparts anchor into the skin.
How Can I Remove a Tick from My Dog?
If you suspect that your dog has a tick, the best way to remove it is using a tool specifically designed for the task.
As a dog owner, you should invest in a tick removal tool like a tick twister. These are small plastic tools that resemble the claw found on the rear end of the head of a hammer.
Place the claw flat against your dog’s skin, and then slide the two sides of the claw around either side of the tick attachment site. Once the head is secure in your tick twister, gently twist by turning the tool clockwise or counterclockwise while applying very gentle, upward pressure. Eventually, the tick will loosen its attachment and dislodge from your dog.
Do not pull directly upwards with your tick twister or remove a tick by just pulling it off with tweezers. In most cases, this will put too much pressure on the tick’s body. While the body may come out, the head and mouthparts will likely stay embedded in your dog.
This scenario is a cause for concern because leaving the head and mouthparts inside the skin can cause swelling and a localized reaction. Squishing and squeezing the tick can also cause the tick’s saliva and innards to enter your dog’s bloodstream. You must avoid this situation, as ticks can carry harmful bacteria and parasites in their saliva, which can transfer to your dog through its blood.
Squeezing a tick can increase the chances that your dog will pick up an infection from a tick that is carrying a potentially dangerous disease.
Which Disease Can Ticks Carry and Give to My Dog?
The most common disease that ticks can transfer to dogs is called Lyme disease. Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, a bacteria that ticks are known to carry in their saliva. When a tick bites and burrows its mouthparts into your dog, it can transmit the borrelia burgdorferi bacteria into the dog’s bloodstream.
Lyme disease can seriously harm your dog’s kidneys and even lead to a harmful and, in some cases, fatal condition known as Lyme nephritis. Once the dog is infected, the bacteria will spread and reproduce within the kidneys and cause severe inflammation, which can lead to kidney failure.
Lyme disease can also affect your dog’s joints. A classic clinical sign of Lyme disease in dogs is known as shifting lameness. In these cases, the spread of the bacteria has caused severe inflammation inside the leg joints. This chronic inflammation manifests as an intermittent sore leg or occasional limping, which tends to affect different legs at different times.
One week your dog may appear sore when it puts weight on its front leg, then the next week, the dog may present signs of soreness on the hind legs. Fortunately, in most cases, dogs that acquire Lyme disease from a tick bite do not show any clinical signs; however, they will still carry a risk of developing Lyme nephritis or shifting lameness for the rest of their life.
Other Tick-Borne Diseases
Another tick-borne disease that is transmissible to dogs is called Ehrlichiosis. This disease involves a type of bacteria that will affect the dog’s blood cells. Ehrlichia bacteria can enter the dog’s body through the tick’s saliva. Once it is inside the dog, it can replicate within certain white blood cells.
One species of Ehrlichia bacteria will replicate within the dog’s blood and destroy platelet cells. These are the white blood cells within the dog’s bloodstream that are responsible for clotting.
The bacteria will destroy platelet cells, making the dog’s body much more susceptible to excessive bleeding that can be very difficult to stop. Dogs affected with Ehrlichia-related issues are susceptible to bruising and dangerous levels of blood loss if they get hurt. These patients will usually have low platelet numbers and very small pinpoint bruises along their gums and skin, known as petechiae.
Another bacterial infection that ticks spread is called Anaplasmosis. It can also affect white blood cells in a very negative way.
Babesia is another tick-borne infection commonly transmitted to dogs. Babesia is small organisms that destroy the red blood cells within the dog’s bloodstream. A babesia infection often causes severe anemia, which means a loss and destruction of red blood cells. This condition can lead to weakness, poor oxygenation, and severe illness.
What Should I Do If My Dog Was Bitten by a Tick?
If you find an engorged tick on your dog and you or your veterinarian have safely removed it, your dog does not necessarily have an infection. However, there is always a chance, which is why you should have your dog tested.
In most cases, a blood test within four to six weeks of the tick bite can determine if the bite or tick removal resulted in your dog becoming infected with any new diseases.
The risk of your dog picking up an infection from a tick depends on numerous factors, including geographical location, the tick species, how you removed the tick, and the duration of the tick bite. Since ticks in certain areas are more likely to carry transmissible diseases and certain species are also more likely than others to be carriers, your dog’s risk of becoming infected will vary.
Speak with your veterinarian about the next steps to take after removing a tick from your dog.
How Do I Prevent Ticks from Biting My Dog?
Luckily, you can implement many strategies to prevent future tick bites.
Small adjustments to daily routines can make a significant difference. For example, keeping your dog away from tall grass and other areas where ticks are likely to live can significantly reduce your dog’s risk. Avoiding areas that you know are endemic to ticks and tick-borne diseases are the easiest way to decrease the risk of your dog getting bit by a tick. Most states, counties, and even cities will publish tick data online, as this helps keep their citizens safe from the diseases ticks carry.
The most efficient and the easiest way to prevent your dog from getting bit by a tick and contracting a tick-borne disease is by getting the dog started on some form of tick prevention. You can find these products in pet stores, or they can be prescribed by your veterinarian directly. Tick prevention products come in many formulations, so you can find a type that suits your personal preferences and your dog’s unique needs.
Which Tick Products are Available?
The most common tick prevention products are oral medications. These are usually in the form of a flavored chewable, and your dog takes one every one to three months. These simple oral medications keep ticks away from your dog, which drastically reduces the likelihood that they will contract a tick-borne disease.
Some of these products also have other parasite preventatives added to them, including flea prevention, heartworm prevention, and more. Oral tick products might be a good choice for defense if your dog is not a picky eater or it does not have a sensitive stomach.
For dogs that do not like eating new things or those with sensitive stomachs, topical formulations are available as an alternative. These are liquid medications that come in small vials. The liquid is applied directly to the skin at the back of the neck. Usually, this takes place every month. Depending on the product, these liquid medications usually last in effectiveness for about one to three months.
Other alternatives can include flea and tick collars, which you can buy through veterinary clinics or at select pet supply stores. These are medicated collars worn by the dog, and they deter ticks from crawling on the skin and biting.
Always speak with your veterinarian about the tick preventative that will work best for you and your dog. Some products can have side effects, so it is important to know what you are buying.
Identifying ticks on your dog is one of the most important lines of defense that you have against tick-borne diseases. By quickly identifying the tick, you will be able to properly remove it and give your dog a better chance of coming away from the bite without contracting a disease.
Educate yourself on tick safety, as tick bites can be just as dangerous for you as they can be for your furry friend.