In the span of less than a week, I found two ticks on my dog Harper, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel. In 25 years of dog ownership, that was a first. We live in Southern California, so ticks are a fact of life, but Harper doesn’t typically go into areas where ticks are found. We don’t have a yard, and she’s not allowed on local hiking trails. I can only surmise that the ticks hitched a ride on me – ick! – after a hike and made their way onto Harper.
Tick populations are increasing. And there aren’t just more of them; they’re being found in more places than in the past, says veterinary parasitologist Dr. Susan E. Little of Oklahoma State University. Milder winters; more white-tailed deer, which carry the tiny arachnids; and increasing development in formerly rural areas are among the factors in the ticks’ spread.
Like me, you might never have had to worry about ticks before, but now is a good time to talk to your veterinarian about their prevalence in your area. Many tick species have moved out of their original habitats, carried away by migratory birds, coyotes and deer. One or more species of ticks can now be found in every state, including Alaska and Hawaii. Ticks used to be active from spring through fall, but warmer winters mean that some species are staying active as late as February, depending on where they are located.
That’s bad news, because ticks are major carriers of diseases that affect humans as well as dogs and cats. Most of us are familiar with Lyme disease, but ticks also transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis and Cytauxzoon felis, which infects cats. The ticks that primarily transmit these debilitating and sometimes deadly diseases are the black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis), the Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) and the American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis).
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Protect yourself and your pets from tick-borne diseases with the following measures:
• Provide all your pets with lifetime parasite control. “We always say to treat every pet every month all year long,” Little says. Dogs and cats don’t spread tick-borne diseases directly to their owners, but they can acquire diseases from ticks as well as bring ticks into the home or yard. And just because your dog or cat stays mainly indoors or lives in a certain geographic region doesn’t mean he’s not at risk.
• Ask your veterinarian which ticks and tick-borne diseases are common in your area and which product is best for protecting your animals. The information may have changed since you last learned about ticks.
• Apply tick-prevention products on a regular schedule. It’s no longer effective to try to time parasite control to start in spring and stop after the second killing frost.
• Check your dog or cat for ticks anytime he has been outdoors. Keep a tick-removal device on hand and know how to use it.
• Make your yard less welcoming to ticks by removing leaf litter, mowing the lawn frequently, keeping landscaping free of tall grass and brush, and fencing your yard to prevent incursions by deer and other animals that carry ticks. A 3-foot swath of wood chips or gravel between your lawn and wooded areas won’t keep ticks away, but it does serve as a visual reminder that you are entering the tick zone.
• Use insect repellent on yourself and wear protective clothing.
• After a hike or other outdoor excursion to tick-friendly wooded areas with tall grass, give yourself a cursory examination for the little bloodsuckers so you don’t drive them home to your pets.