Ticks don't follow rules: How to prepare your dog for tick season

Ticks don't follow rules: How to prepare your dog for tick season

Paws For Reaction Ticks and dogs in Canada

With everything going on in the world today, it's easy to get distracted from things we would normally be focused on in Springtime: like your pet's preventative care. We may be in the middle of a global COVID-19 pandemic, but the tick population isn't aware. Ticks are not self-isolating or keeping a 6-foot distance from you or your dog. Ticks will become active when temperatures hit 4°C whether there's a pandemic or not. Your pet's flea and tick prevention is still important- even if they're spending less time outside.

On average, about 1 in 5 black-legged ticks (also referred to as deer ticks) in Ontario carry the bacterium that causes Lyme disease- Borrelia burgdorferi. Just because a tick has bitten your dog, doesn't mean that your dog will contract Lyme disease or any other tick-borne illness. However, if your dog is not on tick prevention that kills ticks before disease transmission can take place, then the risk of exposure is higher. There are more tick-borne illnesses than just Lyme disease that can put your dog at risk, these diseases are just less talked about and less common. It's no question that ticks are on the rise in Ontario. The real question is why?

Why are there so many more ticks?

The obvious answer is warmer weather. Climate change has increased the tick population. Warmer weather has lengthened the seasons in which ticks thrive. Ticks are most active in March, April, May and in early June. They tend to hide in the shade when really hot weather hits and become more active again in September, October and November. 

Suburbanization is also ensuring that we cross paths with more ticks. People are living and building in areas where wildlife has lived for years, and the ticks aren't aware that this is our territory now. On the other hand, preserving green space and planting more trees is also allowing ticks to thrive in their natural habitat. 

Migratory birds are providing ticks with free transportation into Ontario, which is why we are seeing an increase in tick species that we didn't see in the past- like the Gulph Coast tick. An increase in white-tail deer will also increase the tick population. There are many different types of ticks in Ontario, and many of them feed on different species. Some of them are especially interested in dogs, and since I'm all about the fur-babies, I'm going to focus on those ticks in this article.

What ticks should I be worried about in Ontario?

Dog-loving ticks that are being reported the most in Ontario are the black-legged tick (deer tick), brown dog tick, American dog tick, Lone Star tick, and Gulph Coast tick. Canada is working hard on identifying and mapping tick species, but a lot of ticks go unreported. Tick species are hard to identify, especially when they are engorged- which they almost always are when they are discovered. Ticks can be really hard to find on your pet, and some of the life stages in the tick's lifecycle are extremely small. They can be the size of a poppy seed! Here's what you need to know about the tick species in Ontario.

Paws For Reaction Ticks and dogs in Canada

Black-legged tick (deer tick)

Very common in Ontario, he likes to feed on the white-footed mouse, white-tail deer, your dog and of course, humans. This lick loves wooded areas, leaf litter, and shrubs. He waives his arms in the air- it's called questing behaviour- waiting to brush against a host. He can transmit Lyme disease to your dog (and you!) and also Anaplasmosis. One nice thing to note is that, unlike people, dogs rarely develop symptoms when they test Lyme positive.

Brown dog tick

He is referred to as the 'roommate tick' because, unlike most ticks, if he hitches a ride into your home he won't try to get back outside. He'll set up shop and if your pet isn't on prevention that kills him, there's a risk that he will infest your home. Have fun with that, because he's difficult to kill once he moves in. He loves places like kennels and animal pens and prefers warmer climates. He's a one-host tick- he's only interested in your dog. He can transmit several pathogens to your dog including (but not limited to) Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Anaplasmosis, and Ehrlichiosis. 

American dog tick

This tick lives in backyards and trails, but unlike some ticks, he also loves urban areas and roadsides. He's a quester. He is less common in Ontario. He can transmit Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever to your dog. He can also cause tick paralysis- scary stuff!

Lone Star tick

This tick has been emerging in Canada by hitching a ride on migratory birds and he is getting a lot of press for one specific reason. This tick can transmit a red-meat allergy to people who he bites. It's the only allergy that is known to be 'transmitted.' Allergies are something that you are either born with or develop over time- but not anymore. If you like to barbeque, this guy could ruin your summer. He is a predatory tick; an aggressive hunter who seeks out a blood meal. You won't catch him questing like the other ticks. He will hunt for his food. He enjoys woodlands with thick undergrowth. He can transmit Ehrlichiosis and Rickettsiosis to your dog.

Gulph Coast tick

This guy is also crossing the border illegally as a stowaway on migratory birds. He loves tall grass and coastal uplands. He loves birds and mammals- and your dog, of course. He can transmit Hepatozoonosis and Rickettsiosis to your dog.

Paws For Reaction Ticks and dogs in Canada

What can I do to protect my dog from getting ticks?

Best answer: your dog should be on prescription tick prevention. What some dog owners aren't aware of, is that medication is just one part of the preventative care plan you should be considering for your dog. I strongly recommend the following three steps. Of course, you need to keep two things in mind: the recommendation of your veterinarian, and your dog's lifestyle. But the following is a good guideline when it comes to your pet's annual external parasite prevention.

The test is best!

The 4-in-1 snap blood test (4dx test) is something I recommend for ALL dogs that go outside- even if they only go in the backyard. How do you know if your dog was exposed to tick-borne diseases if you aren't testing for them? The IDEXX 4dx snap test doesn't take a lot of time to provide results (most veterinary clinics run it in-house) and doesn't require a lot of blood, so your dog has minimal discomfort. The 4dx tests for the following:

  • Heartworm: Heartworm disease is transmitted by infected mosquitos. It's a potentially fatal, difficult to treat and completely preventable disease. When choosing a flea and tick prevention, it's important to choose one that also has heartworm prevention. 
  • Anaplasmosis: Transmitted by an infected brown dog tick or black-legged tick (deer tick). 
  • Lyme disease: Transmitted by an infected black-legged tick (deer tick). 
  • Ehrlichiosis: Transmitted by an infected brown dog tick or Lone Star tick.
Paws For Reaction Ticks and dogs in Canada
Graphic via IDEXX Vet Connect

The test will provide positive or negative results for each disease listed, and your veterinarian will let you know how often to test. Make sure that your dog is at least 7 months of age before her first 4dx test for accurate results, and if your dog has been bitten by a tick, wait 6 months before testing for tick-borne illnesses, to allow the window of accurate testing to close before you screen for tick-borne disease. Testing is important to ensure that your dog was not exposed to ticks during the months she was not on prevention and for accurate disease reporting in your region.

Prevention is essential!

Effective broad-spectrum parasite prevention that has a fast speed of kill for ticks and prevents against several tick species we commonly see in Ontario is the product you should choose for your pet. By broad-spectrum, I mean a product that does more than just fleas and ticks. Talk to your vet about your dog's lifestyle. Some dogs are more at risk than others. There are many great preventions out there that will kill all 5 species of ticks listed in this article. Some also prevent against heartworm and other internal parasites. Make sure you purchase enough of the product to treat your pet from March to November. Since it's less expensive and easier to prevent disease than it is to treat disease, this will be money well spent.

Epidemic means extra steps!

If you live in a region where Lyme disease-carrying ticks are more common- like Kingston and Gananoque, where up to 40% of the black-legged ticks carry the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria- then you should be vaccinating your dog against Lyme disease. Any region where Lyme disease is becoming an epidemic should be well-researched. Ask your veterinarian about the presence of ticks and Lyme disease in your community. The Lyme vaccine is a lifestyle vaccine and is not typically considered a core vaccine, so in many places, if you want it for your dog you will need to ask for it. With ticks on the rise, you need to have this conversation with your vet. They will be able to tell you if the vaccine is right for your dog. 

What natural alternatives can I use to prevent ticks?

The simple answer is NONE! Seriously, if there was a non-medical option to kill external and internal parasites, veterinarians would be using it and promoting it. Please DO NOT give your dog garlic. It doesn't prevent against fleas or ticks, and it's toxic to dogs. One important thing to keep in mind is the term 'all-natural' in the pet retail environment. The AAFCO definition of ‘natural’ is any plant, animal or mined source. The term natural has no association with the quality or efficacy of the ingredient. 

Parasite prevention prescription medications have been through clinical trials and tested for years, and they are incredibly safe. Side effects are uncommon- even if the talk of side effects is common in the news media. Most dogs are on these preventions for most of their lives and never experience a single side effect. If you have concerns about potential side effects or questions about parasite season, talk to your veterinary team. Many clinics are still willing to dispense parasite prevention during the COVID-19 pandemic, as long as safety protocols are followed. They do what they do because they love pets! 

I hope this information helps you navigate tick season. I've been working in the veterinary field for more than five years, and in my time I've seen a significant increase in ticks coming into clinics. I've also learned a lot, and I'm here to help! Don't be so distracted that you forget to protect your pet. Stay PAWsitive! 

Paws For Reaction Ticks and dogs in Canada

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