During the past few months, we have all been learning a great deal about how to slow the spread of disease with prevention being the key word. Prevention by washing hands frequently and thoroughly, social distancing, limiting exposure by staying home and by wearing protective masks and gloves for the prevention of COVID19 virus.
Now is also a critical time to think of tick prevention for your dogs and cats. Ticks are external blood-feeding parasites of mammals, birds and sometimes reptiles and amphibians. Preventing serious and life threatening illness for them but — and for us — is crucial. Here are a few of the common questions that come up relating to ticks and our pets. The real answers should only be given by a veterinarian, so the commentary is simply that — statements to offer some background and input for you to have more definitive questions when speaking to your pet’s veterinarian.
Why more ticks now?
Ticks are not newcomers, having evolved beginning more than 66 million years ago and are now widely distributed around the world. Go back in time 10, 20 and 30 or more years to think about when pet owners really began confronting ticks. The topic was barely a discussion prior to the 1970s, and then it was due to a very isolated problem in a specific region with people contracting a new disease, Lyme, from ticks. Some areas of the country were reporting increasing incidents of ticks on people or their dogs throughout the 1980s but by the 1990s, addressing tick prevention became a necessary topic at the veterinary office. Since that time, ticks and the diseases they carry have been growing exponentially, with cats being included.
Why more ticks everywhere?
Ticks and the diseases they transmit are increasing at rapid speed and the reason for this comes with many answers. When considered collectively, they make sense:
• Loss of habitat for wild animals that may naturally carry a certain tick load means that those animals are adapting to life closer to people;
• Increasing deer populations due to decreased deer hunting, as they are a natural host;
• Ticks evolving and becoming resistant to chemicals that once worked effectively to keep populations down in neighborhoods and public places;
• Agriculture-based lands that grew crops or had pastures are now becoming reforested, creating habitats for wildlife tick carriers;
• Climate change, including warmer average winter temperatures has made it easier for many tick species overwinter;
• The increasing trend of dogs traveling around town and greater distances with their people, thus increasing their exposure.
Why more ticks on cats?
I got a call from someone whose cat lives predominately indoors; outdoors for this cat consists of a fenced area on a second floor balcony and the cat had two ticks that the owner removed. The owner wondered how the cat got the ticks and they had never heard of cats getting ticks. Cats do get ticks, even strictly indoor cats. Ticks are well suited to attach to our dogs, clothing, shoes and shopping bags, for example, as ways of entering our homes. There is a growing number of ticks so incidents of tick-borne diseases are growing as well.
Why all the different ticks and diseases?
First it was Lyme or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, but now Anaplasmosis, Ehrlichia, Babesiosis and Bartonella are becoming more familiar terms, in addition to cytauxzoonosis, tularemia and hemobartonellosis. There are more than 800 species of ticks throughout the world and thankfully, just a small percentage cause concerns with our pets. Of this small number, it is important to know what tick you have removed from your dog or cat because some are very specific as to the pathogens they transmit. The sooner a veterinarian can have that information, diagnosis and treatment are more rapid and helpful to your pet.
What are the common symptoms that my dog or cat is suffering from a tick-borne disease?
This is impossible to answer because every pet can react differently or not react at all. Lyme disease is commonly said to cause lameness, but this is not always true and there can be many other causes for lameness, the same goes for lethargy, vomiting and aching joints. The very best guidance is to bring your pet to the veterinary clinic if it is not acting, behaving, eating, drinking, urinating or having bowel movements typically.
Are there treatments for tick-borne diseases?
The short answer is yes. The effectiveness of these treatments depends on how quickly the tick is removed and identified, how quickly the pet is diagnosed properly at a veterinary hospital, what type of disease is being treated, any other underlying or co-existing conditions and age/breed/general health status of the pet. Antibiotic therapy is typically used primarily, with supportive care added such as fluids, anti-inflammatory medications, etc.
How did my pet get the disease when I never saw a tick on him?
Any number of reputable websites (see below) will give detailed information about tick identification with an ever-expanding range of tick territories. These websites show photos of ticks at different life stages along with size measurements. From this information one can realize how incredibly small some ticks are. Regardless of size, it is easy to miss a tick on your dog or cat unless you are meticulously vigilant with thorough grooming daily. Ticks can be scratched, fall or rubbed off your pet before being observed. Each vector-bearing tick can transmit disease at varying rates so the timetable for safely removing a tick before it transmits Lyme disease (24 to 48 hours) is different from the time that, for example, Anaplasmosis becomes infective.
Is there a time of year when ticks are not a problem?
No. Ticks are now a year round problem in this region of New York.
How to select the best tick treatments
Dr. Susan Little, co-director of the National Center for Veterinary Parasitology at Oklahoma State University said, “If you have a dog (or cat) maintained on tick control, the ticks the dog (or cat) encounters are killed, and they’re not in the home or in the environment and able to transmit infection. It’s a perfect example of one health.” Choose a reputable preventative.
The best policy is to ask for information from your veterinarian who knows the pet’s breed, age, health, the environment the pet and pet family live in and any other circumstances that will play a part in the decision, such as owners who follow directions and those that may forget from time to time. Under no circumstances should dog tick medications be used on cats or any other species. The results are costly and can be fatal.
If you plan to purchase products somewhere other than from your veterinary office, it is still important to discuss products with the veterinarian. Ask about how often a product is applied, how it is applied (topical, oral, collar, injectable) how long it takes for the product to become effective, does bathing or swimming dilute the product, can multiple products be used at the same time (ie: collar and oral preventatives), if the product repels and kills, costs, is it safe if young children are in contact with the pet, is it safe if there are other animal species in the household, what other insect pests does this product protect against and what are symptoms of adverse reactions to the treatment.
For cats, Feline Revolution Plus or Feline Bravecto Plus are two products that most veterinarians are recommending, although there are other good products out there. There are effective collars on the market for cats but consideration should be taken for how snug the collars must be in order to be effective.
For dogs there are many variables, some that have been mentioned, including owners compliance to keeping on the preventative schedule and what form of medication is easiest for owners to administer, what environment the dog lives, plays and walks in, contact with other dogs and with wildlife (or where wildlife is common).
If you are a pet owner focused on homeopathic, natural remedies, please contact a veterinarian who specializes in homeopathic medicine. There are some in this region who will give much more reliable and educated information than might be found on the internet or from other questionable sources.
Flea combing for fleas and ticks is a secondary preventative measure, as is placing a Seresto or similar collar inside the vacuum canister to kill any ticks that are vacuumed up. Keeping grass trimmed low can help and some recommend spraying the yard your cat or dog comes in contact with while others reject this spraying method due to pollinators and beneficial insects and birds.
Below is a listing of wonderfully informative websites that offer information relating to prevention of ticks on your dog and cat. These sites are valuable for their research, up to date information and unbiased viewpoints regarding recommended products.
Terry Hannum is a licensed veterinary technician, a farmer and an animal advocate. If you have a subject you would like to have her address, email email@example.com. Her columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/news/lifestyles.