Ticks have a serious “ick” factor, and finding one attached to your dog can make you feel a little squeamish. But the reality is, ticks are common, and chances are good that one of the parasites will attach to your dog at some point in their lives. In fact, ticks sometimes seem to end up on pups so often, you might start to even wonder, “do ticks fly”?
“Dog owners should care about ticks because [ticks] can cause numerous health issues ranging from mild lethargy to swollen lymph nodes to trouble with gait to bleeding issues,” says Amy Nichelason DVM, DABVP, veterinarian and clinical assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. “In endemic areas where ticks thrive, it’s important that pet owners understand the risks of tick-borne diseases.”
Some tick-borne diseases cause painful joints in dogs while others can cause severe fever inappetence in cats. Read on to learn more about how ticks move, where they live, and what you can do to protect your dog from illness.
Understanding Tick Anatomy
Ticks are not insects; the ectoparasites are part of the arachnid family. Unlike insects, which have a head, thorax and abdomen and six legs, ticks have a head and a body and eight legs.
The other main difference between ticks and insects is their diet.
“The only thing ticks eat is blood,” says Thomas Mather, Ph.D., director of the TickEncounter resource center at the University of Rhode Island Center. “Insects have a little bit more of a varied diet. Although there are some blood sucking insects, [they] also take in nectar and other things.”
Ticks rely on a pair of appendages (chelicerae) that work like saws to make a hole in the skin and insert their mouthparts (called the hypsotome) into the skin to feed. The larger the bloodmeal, the more engorged ticks become.
Do Ticks Fly?
As we mentioned earlier, when you find a tiny tick attached to the ear of your pup, it’s natural to wonder how it got there. Do ticks fly or jump? The answer to this is a resounding NO, according to Mather.
“They don’t fly; they don’t jump; they don’t fall out of trees,” he says.
How Do Ticks Get on Pets?
Okay, so how do ticks get around then? Do ticks climb trees? Do they travel on the ground?
In order to get to a pet, ticks do something called questing. A questing tick crawls up a tree trunk or a tall blade of grass and anchors itself with its back legs and waits to detect the odor, heat signature, or vibration that signal a host is near before reaching out with their front legs to get onto the host, Nichelason explains.
How high the tick climbs depends on the size of their preferred hosts. Questing ticks that want to attach to mice might remain in leaf litter, while those that prefer deer will climb higher.
A tick’s size and life stage can also impact their questing behavior. “At younger stages, the small and the medium-sized ticks are usually questing at ground level,” Mather says. “Adult stage ticks are going to crawl up the vegetation just a little bit higher to be at the height of their preferred host.”
Where Do Ticks Quest?
Questing ticks can be found in a range of habitats, from wooded areas and tall grasses to leaf litter, stone walls, and wood piles. It’s possible for ticks to get on your dog after walking in the park, hiking in the woods, camping, or even spending time in the backyard.
Ticks are found in all 50 states, but different species are present in different areas, and your location affects the risk of encountering disease-carrying ticks. You can search the TickEncounter field guide to see which ticks are in your area and better understand the risk of disease if a tick gets on your pet.
Mather emphasizes the importance of understanding the risk where you live and play. “A paper that just came out tested 11,000 American dog ticks from New Hampshire [and] not one of them was infected with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever,” he says, while “1 in 2 black-legged ticks in the Northeast, upper Midwest, and Middle Atlantic states are carrying the Lyme disease germ. So the risk is really different depending on the tick, which is why we like people to understand that…ticks aren’t just one flavor.”
How to Protect Pets Against Ticks
Yes, ticks are typically a part of any dog’s life at any given time, but there are things you can do to help protect your pup.
Perform Regular Checks
Ticks prefer to attach to areas that are dark, moist, and have less hair, according to Nichelason. You should always do a “tick check” of your dog’s entire body after they spend time outside; pay special attention to your dog’s head and ears, groin, and armpits, as well as between their toes and at the underside of their tail. Not all ticks will be easy to find.
“We have to be proactive with our preventative therapies because some ticks…can be about the size of a poppyseed and they can hide out in areas where we may have a harder time finding them,” Nichelason adds.
If you do find a tick, remove it. Using tweezers, get as close to the skin as possible and pull straight out in one motion. Don’t leave the head behind. Then, kill or flush the tick down the toilet.
Use a Tick Preventative
Tick preventatives are the best way to protect your pet. The active ingredient in oral or prescription topical tick preventatives gets into your dog’s bloodstream; when the tick attaches and starts feeding, the medication then goes into the tick’s bloodstream and kills them. Fortunately, now tick prevention is frequently included in all-in-one pills to prevent internal and external parasites.
“Typically, depending on the tick-borne disease, it takes 24 to 48 hours after the tick attaches and starts feeding before they transmit disease,” says Nichelason. “The purpose of the preventative is that it kills the tick before that can happen.”
Some dog owners only use preventatives seasonally, but it’s important to protect your dog all year long. Any time the ground thaws, ticks can activate and try to get a bloodmeal. In warmer areas of the country, ticks can be active year-round outdoors.
Mather also notes that the brown dog tick is a species that can survive in your home, presenting a year-round risk.
Stay On Top of Landscaping
You can cut the grass short, remove leaf litter, use gravel or wood chips to create a 3-foot-wide barrier between your yard and wooded areas, and keep wood piles stacked neatly to reduce the chances of ticks inhabiting your yard.
The better you understand tick behavior and the more vigilant you are, the easier it will be to prevent ticks on pets.