As we enter the summer months and ticks become a more prominent threat, experts are warning that checking your pets for ticks is an important step when hitting the outdoors. We chatted with pet expert and Rover veterinarian Dr. Rebecca Greenstein, who shared her insights on keeping our furry friends safe. —Vita Daily
Hi Rebecca! Please tell us a bit about yourself to start.
I’m a small animal veterinarian and proud graduate of Ontario Veterinary College. After spending almost a decade caring for thousands of sick and injured pets as a chief emergency veterinarian, I left the frenzy of ER behind to take the reins at Kleinburg Veterinary Hospital in Kleinburg, Ontario, in 2018. I joined Rover.com’s Dog People Panel as their veterinary medical advisor with a shared vision of making the lives of fur babies and pet parents happier and healthier. When I’m not in my work scrubs, you may have seen me on TV as the resident veterinary medical expert for CTV’s Your Morning and The Social.
What in the world is a tick and why are they harmful to our pets?
Ticks are actually related to spiders! What makes them scarier in a sense is that these eight-legged little parasites feed on blood! They survive by climbing onto animals (and people!), burying their sharp mouthparts under the skin, all in pursuit of their next blood meal. Ticks can carry dangerous bacteria in their guts, like the organisms that cause Lyme disease, and transmit it through their saliva when they feed. It’s important to note that not all ticks carry disease-causing bugs, but the number of ticks is on the rise, and the percentage of carriers is also increasing. In some areas, up to 85 per cent of ticks carry Lyme disease, which they can potentially transmit to anyone they feed on! Lyme disease is only one of several diseases that can be transmitted by ticks … different tick species can carry different disease-causing bugs. Almost all the diseases your pet can get from a tick bite (Lyme, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, etc.) are pretty serious.
How does a tick usually get onto a pet, and what can happen/how it can impact our pets' health?
Ticks generally like to live in long grasses and leaf litter. We used to think of ticks as only being a threat in wooded or rural areas, but this idea is getting outdated. Ticks can really live anywhere outside, even in shrubs or grassy parks. Some of my patients coming in with ticks were playing in their own backyards! Ticks seek out their blood meal by trying to latch onto passing dogs (and other creatures). They do something called ‘questing’ where they crawl to the top of grasses or bushes and extend their legs hoping to hop onto the next unsuspecting animal that walks by. Once they’ve hitched a ride, they attach themselves by burying their mouthparts into a pet’s skin, piercing it, to prepare to dine on your pet’s blood. Ticks infected with certain bacteria in their guts can transmit these pathogens when they feed. They regurgitate disease-causing organisms out through their mouth and into a pet’s bloodstream. For certain tick species, some infective bacteria can be transmitted in as little as three hours! Lyme is one of several tick-borne diseases, and it can cause symptoms like lethargy, swollen joints, fever, lameness, skin rashes and even kidney problems. These signs can be vague at first and develop quite some time after the initial infective bite.
What are the top tick hot spots across Canada?
Great question! The answer is actually changing every year, and is receiving a lot of attention recently as researchers are actively trying to map tick prevalence in real time, using data gathered from pet owners, veterinarians, and human health sources. The geographic range of ticks is expanding, and new species of ticks that were previously unheard of in Canada are slowly starting to appear within our borders. In my practice, we’re seeing more ticks this year than ever before, and we aren’t even supposed to be a ‘hot spot’ in our specific area! The key areas are southeastern Ontario, along the north shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, southern Quebec, and into New Brunswick. Further west, southern Manitoba is another hot zone (and along the border with southwestern Ontario) but the distribution areas are growing across the country, as are the number of areas we predict will become endemic for Lyme disease.
Tell us, step by step, how to identify a tick on our dog, and how to remove it?
Ticks vary in size depending on life stage and whether or not they’re engorged (swollen) from a recent blood meal. Some baby ticks (immature forms known as nymphs) are the size of a sesame seed, and unfed adults are the size of an apple seed, so it pays to check closely since they’re not always easy to find through your dog’s fur. An engorged adult tick can be the size of a pearl or even a small grape. Gross, I know! After walks, dog parents should be running their hands along their pups’ legs and whole body, checking even their heads and behind their ears for any new bumps which might in fact be an attached tick! If you find a tick, don’t panic! I recommend that owners bring their dogs into their vet to have medical staff examine and remove any suspected ticks, especially because it’s essential to remove them without leaving their buried mouthparts behind in the skin. If you choose to remove a tick at home, here are a few tips, but always remember to contact your vet and arrange blood testing for your pet four to six weeks later to screen for the transmission of Lyme and other diseases:
> wear gloves to ensure your own skin is protected from a tick’s mouthparts;
> use a specialized plastic tick remover or tweezers to grasp the tick as close to its head as possible where it meets the surface of your pet’s skin;
> if you’re using tweezers, pull straight in an upwards direction, to remove the tick intact;
> since the mouthparts are buried beneath the surface, use caution to avoid twisting or ripping them off and leaving them behind;
> place the tick in a sealed container and bring it to your vet for identification. Some vets will submit the tick itself for disease testing, depending on the species;
> some old wives’ tales recommended using a lighter or nail polish remover or alcohol on the tick itself to remove it—this is a TERRIBLE idea, and a hard no from me;
> monitor the bite site for any redness or swelling; and
> over the following weeks (or months), look out for any unusual symptoms in your pet—if you notice changes in energy level, appetite, mobility, swollen glands, or anything ‘off’, have your pet seen by a vet right away.
Your best tick prevention tips ... ?
At Rover, we’re dedicated to the health and safety of pets, which is why we urge pet parents to take preventative measures during tick season. In fact, I would argue my canine and feline patients are better protected against ticks and Lyme disease than I am! The first step is to reduce the exposure risk by avoiding wooded areas for strolls with your pet and clearing leaf litter and long grasses and other tick hiding spots from your property. The key weapons in the fight against tick-borne diseases come from your veterinarian! Every pet owner should be talking to their family vet about starting monthly topical or oral products against ticks … in my practice, I have my dog patients on these year-round. We do blood testing yearly to screen for exposure to Lyme and other diseases transmitted by ticks. We’ve had five Lyme positive scares so far this year alone! I recommend almost all of my puppies get vaccinated against Lyme disease if their exposure risk is high. Talk to your vet about the best options for your pet. Lastly, I want pet owners to get into the habit of checking their pets closely coming back in from outside for any lumps or bumps and making sure these aren’t actually engorged ticks or missed tick bites. Since dogs are considered sentinel species when it comes to tick-borne diseases, if you’re checking your dog for ticks after a hike, you should be inspecting yourself and your loved ones as well!
Finally, tell us what you and your pet(s) are planning to do this summer—tick safe, of course!
I’m so happy summer is finally here! I’m looking forward to spending some time with my family’s Frenchies and probably popping over to the Toronto Islands, our favourite urban oasis. The Rover team and I wish all pet parents a relaxing and safe summer with their four-legged besties!