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Ticks Bites: Their Consequences and Prevention

Updated on October 30, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock and wildlife in a career that spans three decades.

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Some Useful, Practical Information

We tend to think of ticks as summer time pests, but pet owners report, and veterinarians confirm, the presence of ticks as early as late February and as late as early December. They’re rugged little buggers.

Ticks are blood-sucking parasites that rely on warm-blooded hosts for their survival. In return, they bless their hosts with skin irritation, allergic reactions and, in extreme infestations, anemia. There are more serious consequences of tick bites, though.

The most notorious tick-borne disease, perhaps, is Lyme disease, discovered in the 1970's in Lyme, Connecticut.

The deer tick is the vector of that disease, which causes many problems for people unfortunate enough to contract it.

Other diseases spread by ticks include Rocky Mountain spotted fever and canine typhus (back on the block we just called it erlichiosis), which is found more commonly in the southern and western regions of the country.

More rare, but a threat nonetheless, is a potentially fatal tick paralysis caused by a neurotoxin in tick saliva.

The life cycle of the tick, often referred to as the "three host tick" is an interesting and complex one.

The simplified version goes like this: The eggs can take from 10 days to a couple of months to hatch.

Upon hatching the larvae, known as seed ticks, attach to a host to take a blood meal.

They'll leave that host, molt into the nymph stage, find a second host, and take another blood meal.

Satiated, they'll hop off that host, molt into the adult stage and seek the third host. After attaching to the third host and taking a blood meal, they mate, completing the cycle.

Here's a tick next to a match head to show scale
Here's a tick next to a match head to show scale | Source

As adults, ticks are tiny and easy to overlook.

To a casual observer, they can look like a freckle; therefor it's important that you spend the time necessary to search your pet's skin.

You should be equally attentive to your children's skin, and your own after spending time in areas suitable for ticks.

Now, one might think that the munch 'n mate lifestyle of the tick isn't such a bad life after all; but it goes downhill fast after the honeymoon.

Shortly after mating, the males die, but the females still have one task left before they go to that big warm-blooded host in the sky. They lay upwards of 30,000 eggs.

The entire cycle can take as little as six weeks to play out, or it can take as long as six and a half months.

Their metamorphosis is subject to a number of environmental factors, including temperature, humidity and rainfall.

As seed ticks and larvae they usually feed on animal hosts. It's the adults that we two-legged hosts have to be careful of.

They usually hang out on the ends of bushes and tall grasses, in a posture called questing, where they attach to hosts that brush against the foliage. They don't hop onto their hosts.

That's why long sleeves and pants are important during tick season. Where might you pick up a tick or two?

On nature walks, walking the dog, looking for errant golf balls, doing yard work, horse back riding, fishing, or when activities take you into the brush or tall grass.

Can you imagine spending most of your life at the end of a bush waiting for a warm-blooded host to pass by?

Statistically, I’ll bet it probably doesn’t happen all that often. I couldn’t find any stats on the subject, but of the 30,000 eggs each female lays, it's probably a safe bet that only scores or hundreds of her offspring survive to reproduce.

Be Locked and Loaded Against Ticks

There’s a variety of weapons available to protect us and our pets. There are topical repellants and insecticides, natural and herbal products, flea and tick powders, sprays, and collars, plus spot on products available through your vet and at pet supply stores.

For yard use there's a variety of chemical and natural insecticides that will kill ticks. Liquid sprays are a better choice than dusts and granular insecticides because they’ll stick to the leaves of the brush and grasses where powders and granules will settle on the ground.

That’s important to remember since ticks cling to the edges of leaves and grasses so they can hitch a ride on a passing host that brushes against the plant. An insecticide on the ground will kill insects on the ground, but not ticks hanging out above.

When ticks do embed remove them carefully, and let dead ticks fall off your pet, so that you don't leave the head or mouth parts embedded.

That can lead to infection. To make the job easier, there are a number of handy gadgets on the market designed to completely remove ticks.

Anecdotal reports claim that if you deposit a drop of liquid soap onto the tick, it will back out on its own to avoid suffocation.

Experts disagree, however. A 2006 article on Eurosurveillance.org pointed cited a study that showed petroleum jelly, fingernail polish, 70% isopropyl alcohol, or a hot kitchen match failed to induce detachment of adult American dog ticks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, " Avoid folklore remedies such as “painting” the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly, or using heat to make the tick detach from the skin.

Your goal is to remove the tick as quickly as possible — not wait for it to detach."

Similarly, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cautions, "Never use a burned match, petroleum jelly, or nail polish to try to remove ticks. These methods are ineffective."

Experts warn that these methods could also stimulate the tick to inject additional saliva or regurgitate their gut contents into the bite site.

USDA further states, "If a tick is removed within 24 hours, the chances of it transmitting Lyme disease or other infections are much less.

Use fine-point tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Pull gently. Avoid squeezing the body of the tick.

Clean the site of the bite, your hands and the tweezers with disinfectant. You may want to wear protective gloves."

It's a good idea to preserve any ticks you remove in a jar of alcohol. If any family members or pets develop symptoms that puzzle physicians or vets, having ticks that they can identify may be a factor in reaching a diagnosis.

More than a nuisance, ticks represent a significant health threat and you need to take appropriate measures to protect your pets, your children, and yourself from the harm these dangerous insects can do.

You get a gold star if you caught my little trick in the sentence above. Ticks aren’t insects. They’re arachnids, putting them in the same family as spiders, scorpions and mites. Just checking to see if you’re paying attention.

© 2012 Bob Bamberg

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