- Ticks at all life stages can live on dogs. Larvae, nymphs, and adults transmit disease.
- Once a tick is embedded into a dog’s skin, it might look like a raised mole or dark skin tag.
- Regular tick checks are essential. Check your dog after hikes, trips to the park, and outdoor playtime.
- If you find a tick on your dog, don’t panic and remove it immediately.
The things your dog loves most—hiking in the woods, playing fetch at the park, rolling around in the grass—puts him at risk for picking up ticks.
Ticks are present in all 50 states and the eight-legged arachnids can transmit tick-borne diseases like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, and ehrlichiosis. In 2019, over 350,000 dogs tested positive for Lyme disease and 221,568 were diagnosed with a life-threatening illness called anaplasmosis, according to data collected from the Companion Animal Parasite Council (1).
“Ticks have mouthparts that act like saws to penetrate the skin,” explains Dr. Ed Breitschwerdt, Melanie S. Steele Distinguished Professorship in Medicine at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “Once they attach, they secrete a variety of substances that transmit viruses, bacteria, or groups of infectious agents.”
What Do Ticks Look Like?
Ticks are arachnids, not insects. A tick goes through four life stages: eggs, larvae, nymphs, and adults. The life stage can affect what a tick looks like.
Larvae, also called seed ticks, earn their name because they are similar in both size and appearance to a poppyseed. Depending on the species, adult ticks can be as small as a 1/4-inch long; engorged ticks (that have feasted on blood) are larger. Tick larvae have six legs while nymphs and adults have eight legs.
Ticks have heads that are much smaller than their bodies. Their mouthparts, the parts that attach to the host, consist of two palps, two chelicerae (chel-is-sir-ee) and one hypostome (high-post-ohm). The chelicerae cuts through the skin and the hypostome functions like a barbed needle, making the tick difficult to remove. Hard ticks also have a tough shell on their backs, called a scutum (scoot-uhm).
Ticks at all life stages can live on dogs. Larvae, nymphs, and adults feed on their blood and transmit disease.
“Tick-borne diseases are the number one vector-borne diseases in the United States,” says Dr. Lee Ann Lyons, a veterinary pathobiologist and graduate research assistant at the University of Illinois. “Often, ticks are so small that most people don’t even realize they’re there—and that’s what makes them dangerous. By the time you realize a tick is there, it’s already been feeding for several days.”
Harmful Ticks: How to Recognize Them on Dogs
Before a tick attaches, its movements often gives it away. If you see a small, brownish arachnid moving on your dog, pluck it off with gloves or a tissue if possible and kill it by putting it in a jar of rubbing alcohol.
Once a tick is embedded into a dog’s skin, it might look like a raised mole or dark skin tag. Since it can be hard to distinguish from a small bump, you’ll have to look very closely for telltale signs it’s a tick such as the hard, oval body and eight legs.
The head of the tick is the only part of the parasite that goes into your dog’s body. So if you see a bump that appears to be under the skin, it’s unlikely to be a tick. If, however, you see something that appears to be sticking out of your dog’s skin, it may be a tick. Grab a small magnifying glass to take a closer look.
There are several species of ticks that can transmit pathogens to dogs and identifying what they look like and their characteristics can help your veterinarian diagnose and treat diseases if symptoms become present.
American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis)
These ticks have flat, oval-shaped bodies. Females have white-to off-white markings on their upper backs while males have a mottled brown and white pattern across their backs.
The American dog tick is found east of the Rocky Mountains and in a growing number of areas along the Pacific Coast. Research shows that this tick species prefer attaching around the head, ears and neck of dogs (2). As larvae and nymphs, the American dog tick tends to stick to smaller animals like mice but adult ticks prefer dogs.
“At each one of these life stages, there’s the risk that whatever animals it’s feeding on has one of these pathogens and the tick will ingest it and transmit it to its next host through the bacteria in its saliva,” Lyons says.
Black-Legged Tick (Ixodes species)
Named for its black legs, black-legged female ticks have flat, oval-shaped orange bodies with a large brown dot on their backs. The males are also flat and oval-shaped but have brown bodies with an off-white border. The Western black-legged tick (Ixodes pacificus) also has black legs. The scutum on males consists of dark brown and rust-colored markings and an orange border surrounding their oval bodies; females have a rust-colored scutum with a dark brown marking on their upper back.
The black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis) and Western black-legged tick are both carriers of Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Adult females of both species have black legs, head, and scutum. They also have a reddish-colored abdomen.
These ticks, also known as deer ticks, attach around the head, ears, and neck (and sometimes on the back) of dogs. The black-legged tick is found throughout the Northeast and upper Midwest while the Western black-legged tick has a range that includes Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Both prefer high brush and open grasslands.
Brown Dog Tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus)
Named for its brown color, this species can complete its entire life cycle indoors or outdoors, which means it can be found in homes, dog shelters, groomers, and boarding facilities, as well as grasslands. It has been identified in every state. The males and females look similar. Both have flat, oval-shaped brown bodies but the male is darker in color than the female.
The Brown Dog Tick is the primary species that transmits Rocky Mountain spotted fever. While it will attach almost anywhere on a dog, Dr. Kathryn Duncan, a resident in veterinary parasitology at Oklahoma State University, notes that the Brown Dog Tick is most often found around a dog’s head, ears, legs and between the toes.
Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americanum)
The female Lone Star Tick has a white dot on her back that looks like a drip of paint. Males have dark brown and rust-colored marking (but no white dots). Their bodies are slightly more rounded than other tick species.
These ticks are found throughout the Southeast, including parts of Texas, but Duncan notes that their geographic distribution is spreading fast, adding, “It’s up into the Northeast now and making its way into the Midwest.” You’ll find these ticks hiding in fields and other brushy areas.
On dogs, the Lone Star Tick embeds itself around the head and neck as well as the belly, armpits and groin where it can transmit illnesses like ehrlichiosis and Heartland virus disease, an illness that causes fever, fatigue, headache, nausea and diarrhea.
“It’s a hunter tick,” Duncan explains. “It detects our presence by carbon dioxide emissions and shadows and will pursue your pet…hunting them down.”
How to Find Ticks on Your Dog
Regular (daily) tick checks are essential. You should check your dog for ticks after hikes, trips to the dog park, and playtime in the backyard. Breitschwerdt advises moving from head to tail, running your hands all over with gentle pressure to feel for small bumps. Look in the ears, under the collar, between the toes and around the tail, moving the hair aside and looking at the skin to see if ticks have attached.
“Dogs with long, or dark fur are more challenging to check,” adds Lyons. “You’ll have to be more thorough.”
Using a flea comb can help. The small tines will “catch” on ticks, but combs should never replace a thorough tactile exploration with your fingers. Lyons notes that regular checks can help you find ticks before they attach, reducing the risk that they’ll spread disease.
What to Do if You Find a Tick on Your Dog
If you find a tick on your dog, don’t panic.
Although the overall likelihood of disease transmission is low, the longer the tick is attached, the higher the risk, according to Lyons.
To remove an attached tick, use a pair of tweezers or a tick-removal tool to grab the tick as close to your pet’s skin as possible and pull straight up from the body surface, being careful not to pull any fur at the same time. You might notice a welt in the spot where you removed the tick, especially if the mouthparts weren’t fully removed.
“If the mouthparts do stay in, you might have to go to the veterinarian because they have better tools to get those out,” Duncan says. “Sometimes the skin will just close over the remaining mouthpart but it could get infected to the point where you would need more advanced wound care or antibiotics. So, if you can’t get it all out, it is important to watch the area or call your veterinarian for advice.”
Once the tick is removed, save it. Breitschwerdt suggests putting the tick in a plastic bag labeled with the date and storing it in the refrigerator. If your dog starts exhibiting any symptoms such as loss of appetite, lameness, lack of energy, fever, nausea, vomiting and arthritis-like stiffness, your vet can get important information about the species and what diseases it might have transmitted.
“If you’ve ever found a tick on your pet, the biggest takeaway is that your animal has just proven to you that they must be on a regular tick control product,” Duncan says. “Many think the tick season is restricted to the summer months, but Ixodes species [like the black-legged tick] prefer the cooler months of the year and can be found across most of the United States.”
Talk to your veterinarian about which year-round tick prevention is best for your dog and your family’s lifestyle.