Tick season is here: How to check your pets and safeguard them from Lyme disease

Learn how to check your dog for ticks and protect them from Lyme disease with expert tips from veterinarians.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Dog and cat playing together outdoor
It's best to be checking your pets for any potential tick bites after they've been outside. (Photo via Getty Images)

Ticks have woken up across Canada, and while you might be checking your own body for any bites when you get back inside, you also want to think of your furry loved ones. While temperatures are above four degrees Celsius, ticks start coming out and searching for hosts to feed on.

As May marks Lyme Disease Awareness Month, and some Canadian provinces see higher-than-usual temperatures, it's best to get in the mindset of preventing tick bites — even if you live somewhere that typically doesn't have the arachnids.

But when it comes to checking your dogs for these pesky critters, how is it different from checking your own skin after some time outdoors? Read on to learn more.

Men's hands cleaning a dog's ears. The dog covers himself with his paw. (Photo via Getty Images)
While running your hands over your dog's skin, you should check for burrowed ticks if you feel a bump or swollen area. (Photo via Getty Images)

Depending on where you live and walk your dog, you should consider how often you check your pet for ticks. For instance, if you live in an area where there are lots of ticks present, or you typically walk through grass, leaf litter or woods, it might be a good idea to do checks after every walk.

"Just get in the habit of rubbing your pet down with gentle pressure, sort of running your fingers through their fur over their whole body once you get back inside," said Dr. Maggie Brown-Bury, Newfoundland and Labrador Representative on the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) Council. "Doing it sort of the same way every time, kind of create a habit or having a little checklist, similar to basically what I'm doing as a veterinarian."

While conducting her own physical exams, Brown-Bury told Yahoo Canada she starts with the animal's head and works her way down so she doesn't miss any possible issues.

"The areas that you want to pay extra close attention to, because of the areas that we tend to miss, are between the toes, right up in the armpit or leg pits, under the collar and inside the ear," she explained, adding you don't want to ignore the mouth and lips, especially if your dog likes to sniff.

"You really just want to make sure that you're covering every inch of skin," she added. "It's the same if you're a person: If you check yourself for ticks, you've got to make sure if you can't see your back that you've got someone to give you a hand to check."

Low angle view of a pet dog with a limp and lifting its leg off the floor in pain. (Photo via Getty Images)
If your dog is limping or walking around like it's on eggshells, it might be a good idea to check for other symptoms of Lyme disease. (Photo via Getty Images)

Pain is the most common symptom of Lyme disease in dogs, along with fatigue, fever and a loss of appetite. According to VCA Canada, dogs with the condition will also exhibit a painful lameness, where they might limp or look like they're walking on eggshells. Cabbagetown Pet Clinic in Toronto has indicated generalized stiffness and swollen joints can also be symptoms.

Some signs the disease is impacting a dog's kidneys include vomiting, lethargy, lack of appetite and weight loss. While this form of Lyme disease is uncommon, VCA Canada noted it's often fatal.

"Most dogs infected with the Lyme disease organism take two to five months before they show symptoms," the network of veterinary hospitals stated. "By this time, the disease may be widespread throughout the body."

Parson Russell Terrier dog feeling tired, desperate and sleepy, lying on a charcoal grey sofa at home with a tick-borne disease. (Photo via Getty Images)
Lethargy and poor appetite are common symptoms of tick-borne diseases for dogs. (Photo via Getty Images)

While Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in both dogs and people, there are other conditions you should watch for — even if they don't appear as often. Aside from Lyme disease, other common tick-borne diseases include:

  • Ehrlichiosis: Carried by brown dog, lone star and American dog ticks, symptoms include fever, bruising, nose bleeds and poor appetite

  • Anaplasmosis: Also called dog fever, it's carried by deer ticks and includes symptoms like lethargy, fever, stiff joints and loss of appetite

  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever: Carried by Rocky Mountain wood, American dog and brown deer ticks, this condition presents symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes, fever, poor appetite, joint pain and possibly weak limbs

  • Hepatozoonosis: This disease can be contracted if your dog ingests protozoa from eating an infected animal such as a bird or rodent

  • Babesiosis: Red blood cells break down in this condition, which leads to symptoms like jaundice, dark-coloured urine, pale gums, lethargy, vomiting and weakness

  • Bartonellosis: More of a less common disease, this one is transmitted by the brown dog tick and can cause symptoms like fever, lameness, seizures, loss of appetites and irregular heartbeat

A female black-legged (deer) tick, Ixodes scapularis, crawls through an animal's hair. These ticks are concerning because they carry Lyme disease. (Photo via Getty Images)
Blacklegged (or deer) ticks are a concern in many parts of Canada because they're rapidly expanding in new parts of the country, resulting in an increased risk of tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease. (Photo via Getty Images)

Veterinarians recommend doing regular pat downs after every walk because when a tick initially latches onto an animal, it'll be barely visible. Once the tick has had time to feed, it'll become larger.

"When it gets engorged, it is much larger, easier to find, but that means that it definitely has been on there for maybe a few days and that it's definitely had a chance to spread any diseases it might be carrying," she said. "You can't tell by looking at a tick if it's carrying any diseases."

According to the Tick Talk website, the CVMA's initiative to prevent tick bites, Western Canada should be on the lookout for the western blacklegged as well as the Rocky Mountain wood tick species. In the east, blacklegged (or deer), American dog and groundhog tick species are present. The brown dog and lone star tick species are also in Canada, but they're adventitious, meaning they don't live in the area but might've been dropped by a migratory bird or taken home from a traveller.

When trying to remove a tick from your dog, you want to be careful that you're not damaging the arachnid. You want to get a good grasp of the critter, pulling it out slowly from its host.

"You want to be removing them properly so that you don't leave any mouth parts under the skin if the tick has already bitten," Brown-Bury said, noting people can watch videos on the Tick Talk website to see the best way to remove the arachnids.

"You can use fine-point tweezers, grabbing it as close to the skin as possible and using a firm twist-and-pull. There are also little plastic devices that are literally for removing ticks that just slide against the skin and they will grab the whole head. ... If you're too quick of forceful, that's when you're more likely to damage the tick and leave parts behind."

In the case you accidentally damage the tick, it's best to make an appointment with your veterinarian. She said if this does happen, it's possible there might be a lot of irritation in the area.

"So just making sure that it gets looked after is the best thing to do," she added. "And if you're not comfortable removing the tick yourself, you can also go to your veterinarian for that."

If you find an engorged tick on your pet and you're worried about any potential issues, it's a good idea to call up your veterinarian. Unfortunately, Brown-Bury said veterinarians can't test right away for diseases when a pet has been bit.

"There's a certain window of time that has to pass before we can rely on the testing," she said. "So usually what we'll do is we'll have you come in when we hit that window and do the testing at that time, just to be sure that no disease was spread.

"Sometimes, depending on where you are, the tick can be tested to see if it was even carrying a disease that you need to worry about."

Moreover, ticks can be identified, and some don't carry conditions like Lyme disease. If you do remove an enlarged tick from your pet, you should put it in a plastic bag and bring it to your clinic for further instructions.

Bronw-Bury added that while people don't typically take their cats for walks, they should also be checked for ticks if you're letting them outside of your home. She said it's a good idea whether you either live in an area where ticks are prevalent or somewhere they're not as present. For instance, migrating birds might drop ticks in areas that usually don't have any of the arachnids.

"The same as with the dog, checking in those little crevices and corners that you might not necessarily be petting when you're giving them that rub down," she noted.

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