An Owner's Guide to Ticks on Dogs

Published November 17, 2021
dog care how to treat ticks

After a hike or camping trip, you likely do a once-over of your own body to check for ticks. But are you taking the same measures for your canine friend? Unfortunately, these parasites are not just a nuisance, as they can carry dangerous diseases. It's important for all pet owners to understand which ticks transmit disease and where to look for ticks on dogs.

What Are Ticks?

adult tick on blade of grass walking to warm source

Ticks are parasites that feed on blood. Unlike fleas, they don't live on animals; they actually spend most of their lives in the environment and only hitch a ride on a host when they need to eat, which occurs only about once each year. Ticks are typically found on tall grasses and in wooded areas where they wait for an animal to walk by. The tick then firmly attaches into the host's skin and feeds.

Ticks have three active life stages: larva, nymph, and adult, all of which can bite and feed. You might be familiar with the well-known depiction of an engorged tick; however, before a meal, these blood suckers can appear as small as a sesame or poppy seed. This makes them challenging to see in the early phase of attachment.

It takes approximately four to five days for an adult tick to become fully engorged, and two to three days for a nymphal tick. Although dogs who spend a lot of time outdoors are at greater risk for tick bites, it only takes a short jaunt around the yard for any pet to pick one up. Their small size and role as a vector for diseases make ticks dangerous.

Types of Ticks

Female Gulf Coast Tick

There are hundreds of tick species, although not all pose as a threat. Some of the most commonly found species that affect dogs include the following.

  • American dog tick (also known as the wood tick)
  • Black-legged tick (commonly called the deer tick)
  • Brown dog tick
  • Gulf Coast tick (pictured above)
  • Lone star tick
  • Western black-legged tick

Although each species inhabits different regions, tick populations are continuously expanding into new areas. At least one of more of these tick species can be found in every single U.S. state, which emphasizes the importance of protecting all dogs from these parasites.

Ticks Transmit Disease

Not only do ticks give you the heebie jeebies, but they can also carry disease-causing bacteria. These pathogens are transmitted after a tick attaches to a dog's skin. This doesn't happen instantaneously. Instead, a tick must be attached for a certain length of time -- typically 6 to 36 hours -- depending on the specific bacteria present.

Many of these diseases are life-threatening or associated with long-term or recurrent symptoms. Even with treatment, some dogs must receive supportive care for the rest of their lives. Lyme disease is one of the most well-known tick-borne diseases, but it's beneficial to familiarize yourself with some of the others along with the tick species that often carry them.

  • Lyme disease: (black-legged tick, Western black-legged)
  • Tularemia: (lone star tick, American dog tick)
  • Anaplasmosis: (black-legged tick, western black-legged tick)
  • Ehrlichiosis: (black-legged tick, brown dog tick, lone star tick)
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever: (American dog tick, brown dog tick)

In addition to acting as a vector for dangerous diseases, ticks can also cause direct disease.

  • Anemia: When enough ticks attach to an animal and feed on their blood, they can cause rapid blood loss or anemia. This is most common in smaller animals with lower blood volume, such as puppies and small dogs, but it's not unheard of in larger animals.
  • Tick paralysis: A toxin in tick saliva can cause progressive paralysis or inability for a dog to move their limbs. These symptoms can appear a few days up to a week after attachment. Although rare, a notable case of tick paralysis is that of a Shetland Sheepdog who presented to DoveLewis Animal Hospital in Portland, Ore. Unable to identify the cause of his paralysis after returning home from a trip, the devastated owners elected for humane euthanasia. However, just moments before saying goodbye, a veterinary student discovered a tick behind the pet's ear. The tick was removed, and the patient regained mobility just hours later.

Symptoms of Tick-Borne Diseases

How do you know if your dog has been exposed to a tick-borne disease? Unfortunately, the clinical signs associated with these conditions can be transient or vague in some cases. Affected dogs may not show obvious signs until several weeks after infection. Some of the common symptoms include the following.

  • Lethargy
  • Decreased appetite
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Lymph node enlargement
  • Joint pain
  • Generalized discomfort
  • Lameness or limping
  • Bruising
  • Coughing
  • Loss of coordination
  • Neurologic signs
  • Seizures

If you're worried about tick exposure, your veterinary team can perform a blood test to determine if your dog has antibodies to any of the common tick-borne diseases. However, you are unlikely to see a positive or diagnostic result until several weeks after exposure.

Where to Find Ticks on Dogs

engorged tick on dog

Due to their small size, ticks can easily go unnoticed on a dog -- particularly one with long fur. According to the Centers for Disease Control, ticks begin to transmit disease-causing bacteria after 36 to 48 hours from the time of attachment, though some pathogens can be transmitted in less than 24 hours. For this reason, prompt and proper removal of any ticks is critical.

After every walk or outing, especially those in heavily wooded areas, do a thorough check of your dog. Separate their fur to view the skin and look for any parasites. If your dog is scratching at a specific location, that could be an indication that a tick has attached there. Don't just examine for engorged ticks; remember that the tiny nymphs can also latch on and transmit disease. Going from tip to tail (or whichever order you prefer), focus on these common areas of attachment.

  • Around the eyes and eyelids
  • Behind and around the ears
  • Inside the ears
  • Underneath the collar
  • Under the armpits
  • Between the toes
  • In the groin area
  • Around and under the tail

If you discover any ticks and you feel comfortable doing so, safely remove them as soon as possible. The site of attachment will likely be irritated, but this should resolve within a few days. Monitor the area for any signs of infection like progressive redness, swelling, or discharge, and see your vet if they occur.

Protect Your Dog from Ticks

The best way to protect your beloved dog from the dangers of ticks is prevention. The use of a vet-approved preventive product and prompt removal of any attached ticks are the best methods to avoid harmful disease. However, if your pet shows any signs of illness, regardless of whether you've removed all visible ticks, it's important to seek veterinary care.

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An Owner's Guide to Ticks on Dogs