An Update on Tick Diseases and Prevention
As I’m sure many are well aware, the harsh winter this year had apparently zero effect on the tick population. Even as I sit writing this article, I just found a large, brown tick crawling between the ears of my Llewllin Setter, Cali. More than just a nuisance, ticks can spread life threatening diseases to your four-legged hunting buddy. A better understanding of the tick life cycle, the diseases they carry in your area, and tick prevention are important responsibilities in running bird dogs.
These nasty little arachnids are nothing new to hunters or bird dogs and they aren’t going away anytime soon. That’s right: Ticks are arachnids, not insects! They’re in the same family as spiders, with eight legs rather than six.
Laid by the thousands, tick eggs can remain dormant for months until conditions are ideal for hatching. The recently hatched 6-legged larva will then quest, hanging from its rear legs while stretching out its front legs to grab a passing-by host. Larval ticks quest from the ground or shorter grasses and shrubs. After feeding on a small mammal or bird for a few days, the larva will drop off its host and molt, becoming an 8-legged nymph. After another round of feeding, this time for weeks to months, nymphs drop from their hosts and molt into the adult stage, spending the rest of their life feeding and reproducing. The nymph and adult life stages will attach to hunters and bird dogs alike.
Contrary to popular belief, it takes more than a few days below freezing to kill off an adult tick. Often a run of sub-zero days is necessary to get the job done. They definitely are much less active during colder seasons, but ticks continue questing even in sub-freezing temperatures, making it important to keep dogs on preventatives year-round.
Depending where you live, your dog may contract one of several different tick-borne diseases. In the Northeast/Upper-Midwest: Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, and Lyme disease (commonly mispronounced as “Lymes” disease). In the South: Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Ehrlichia are more common. And my own personal nightmare, Alpha-gal syndrome, a permanent allergy to red meats suspected to be caused by a bite from the Lone Star tick.
Aside from Alpha-gal, most tick-borne diseases cause similar symptoms. The most common of which is referred to as a “shifting-leg-lameness”, where dogs appear to limp on one leg one day, and a different leg another day. Dogs with tick diseases will also spontaneously develop fevers. In advanced stages of disease, dogs will develop anemia, jaundice, kidney failure, and autoimmune disorders.
If you’re concerned your dog may have a tick-borne infection, it can be diagnosed with several different blood tests. Once diagnosed, they are usually treated with a 4-6 week course of an antibiotic called doxycycline. Flaring up several times over a dog’s life, tick diseases often cannot be cured, just controlled, requiring multiple rounds of antibiotics throughout the years.
The most important aspect of tick-borne illnesses is preventing transmission altogether. Preventative collars, topical ointments and sprays, as well as oral medications all are methods to prevent ticks form transmitting diseases. Deterring ticks from biting, collars and topical applications are the best methods for outright prevention of attachment. However, if the tick does bite without directly coming into contact with these products, there is nothing to keep it from spreading disease to your dog.
I do not recommend holistic or over-the-counter options for tick prevention. These generally are less effective and some holistic trends like feeding garlic are actually toxic to dogs!
More recently, many hunters have found success in oral tick preventatives. Administered anywhere from once every 1-3 months, these products can be more convenient and unlike the topical products, you don’t have to worry about anything washing off. Once at tick bite occurs, transmission can take from 6-48 hours, depending on the disease. Oral medications will typically kill ticks off before disease transmission occurs. Personally, I give my dog Nexgard. To my knowledge, Nexgard is the only available product actually labeled by the FDA to reduce risk of Lyme disease transmission.
Innovations in tick prevention as well as the popularity of at-home remedies produce challenges in choosing what’s best for your pet. Overall, the best thing you can do is talk to your vet. Not only will they will be knowledgeable of the types of ticks and diseases in your area but most companies veterinarians work with have guarantees on their products and will pay for all testing and treatment if an infection were to occur. They may be more costly, but are safer than at-home remedies and are cheaper than all testing and treatment of tick-borne diseases your dog may get.
A veterinarian and avid outdoorsman, Dr. Dustin Babler blends a strong background in emergency care, canine nutrition and reproductive medicine with his passion for performance dogs and hunter education. A frequent contributor of articles appearing in veterinary, breeding and outdoors magazines along with speaking engagements throughout the country, Dr. Babler provides a wealth of information to outdoorsmen and breeders alike. Follow on Instagram for advice throughout the hunting season: DrDustinDVM