It is spring! This is a time that many of us look forward to, but so do other creatures including ticks! Although Lyme disease and the Ixodes black legged ticks, also known as deer ticks, that transmit it are the most well-known, they actually may not pose the greatest risk to our animals or us.
Know Your Ticks and Their Life Stages: The first ticks to wake up in spring are the adult ticks. They are the largest ticks and thus easier to spot. They also take the largest bloodmeals so they can lay eggs and produce the next generation of ticks. In fact, adult ticks can feed even in the winter when it is above freezing. If you have found a tick on you or your pet this past winter, it would have been an adult. Here in the Northeast, in addition to the Black-legged Deer ticks, Lone Star ticks, American Dog ticks, Brown Dog ticks, and Groundhog ticks are found. The different species of tick and life stages of each one (larvae, nymph and adult) pose quite distinct risks for pets and for people, so it’s important to become familiar with some of these differences (https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/life_cycle_and_hosts.html) (https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/CAES/DOCUMENTS/Publications/Fact_Sheets/Entomology/PreventionTBDCompanionAnimals2017expdverpdf.pdf).
It's Not Just About Lyme Disease: Beyond Lyme Disease, nymphal deer ticks can transmit anaplasmosis to cats, dogs and people. It’s a bacterial infection that leads to lethargy and high fevers. Dogs and cats can also experience lameness, joint pain and loss of appetite, but the disease is much more frequent in dogs than cats. These symptoms are similar to Lyme disease, so a blood test is necessary to distinguish them. Anaplasma can be transmitted after a nymphal Ixodes tick has been attached for 24 hours, but for Lyme disease the tick has to be attached for 48 hrs for transmission to occur.
A disease to watch for in cats is something called cytauxzoonosis. It has not yet been found in CT, but the tick that carries it, the Lone Star tick (it gets its name from the spot on its back not geography) is becoming more common in CT as are bobcats, which are the natural host for this disease. Infected Bobcats have been found as close as Pennsylvania. If your cat appears sick don’t wait to see if it gets better, take your cat to a vet right away. This infection can be deadly and we don’t know when the first case will appear in CT. This disease is caused by a parasite called Babesia.
There are several different types of Babesia parasites including different species that can infect dogs and also humans. Dogs are most likely to be infected with a particular Babesia species that is transmitted by a brown dog tick (unlike humans that get a different Babesia parasite from deer ticks). It does take 24-48hrs for the parasites to be transmitted, so prompt removal of ticks is key to preventing infection.
Dog ticks and lone star ticks can transmit Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Ehrlichia infections to dogs that can be fatal, but for one the acute disease can be more severe and for the other it would be the later stage manifestations that cause the most severe disease. Prevention is always the “best medicine” but if you find a tick on your pet it is important to remove it and try to accurately identify it so you can give that information to your vet.
Correct Removal of Ticks: Speaking of tick removal, it is important to do it correctly. Do not pull on the body of the tick or you are likely to “break” the tick and leave the mouth parts attached. You need to grab the tick with tweezers as close to the skin attachment site as possible and pull firmly to remove the tick (ticks actually secrete a cement that allows them to stick to their host during feeding). The mouse parts also have little barbs on them, so do not expect the tick to detach easily. Doing things like putting Vaseline or alcohol on the tick while it is still attached, doesn’t help. You always want to remove the tick.
Uninfected Ticks Can Still Pose Risks: Keep in mind however, that even uninfected ticks can pose a risk, so it’s always best to prevent tick bites or promptly remove a feeding tick early. “Tick paralysis” is not caused by an infection, but by something in the tick saliva, and it can be transmitted by many different tick species. It is usually caused by adult female ticks (they take the biggest bloodmeals and feed the longest) that have been attached for at least 4 days. Exactly how the ticks cause the paralysis is not clear, but luckily usually quick removal of the tick makes the paralysis also quickly disappear. The symptoms of tick paralysis are sudden “lameness” or some partial paralysis and difficulty breathing, as well as a difference in vocalizations. If your dog (this is very rare in cats in the US, but can happen in people especially children) exhibit these symptoms search for an attached tick and remove it promptly. If ticks are not found and removed, your dog can get progressively worse, and the condition can lead to death.
A risk for people but not for our pets is developing a red meat allergy after having a lone star tick feed on you (and perhaps other species of ticks). These ticks have something in them called “alpha-gal” that is also found in red meat so if one of these ticks feeds on us, we make an immune response to this compound because it is foreign to our bodies. If we then eat red meat, which has the same compound in it, we activate an immune response to it resulting in symptoms of an allergic response including, hives, shortness of breath and abdominal pain and nausea. Unlike other food allergies, these symptoms don’t occur right away but take several hours to develop. This risk is specific to people and other primates because all other mammals like our dogs and cats (and ferrets and rabbits…) have alpha-gal in their bodies so don’t make an immune response to it (that’s why it’s found in red meat).
Tick Prevention: We have good preventative measures for our pets to keep ticks of off them and the benefits usually outweigh the risks of using the topical treatments. For people, wearing treated clothing and the right clothing (full coverage and dark colors as ticks prefer light colored clothing) is important. Keep in mind though, that ticks will be harder to spot on dark clothing. Another important preventative measure is to do tick checks on your pets and yourself. Ticks can hitch a ride on clothing or fur and come inside and then find a host to attach to once inside, so don’t assume that once you or your pets come inside, you are “in the clear”. Lastly, remember that the most well-known risks are not always the most severe risks. Other ticks and other infections can pose more severe risks to pets and people than does Lyme disease.