It’s creepy enough that there are billions of these tiny insects living in the woods and fields, just waiting to latch onto your dog (or you!) and suck your blood. Bloating themselves with blood, ticks expand in size exponentially before falling off, able now to reproduce – gross! Add in the fact that a certain percentage of ticks may also infect your dog (or you!) with a disease that can cause pain and suffering for the rest of his life – that’s beyond creepy. I lack words to describe the sheer perniciousness of this insect’s survival strategy.
Most of us are aware that ticks can be infected with the spirochetes (microscopic bacterial organisms) that cause Lyme disease (for more information, see Lyme Disease in Dogs, WDJ October 2018). But, depending on what part of the country you live in, the ticks around you may carry any number of other spirochetes that cause other painful diseases, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, and more.
Parasites in Parasites
These spirochetes are parasites of the ticks themselves! Ingeniously, they use ticks to help them move from one host to another. When a tick sucks blood from an infected mammal, bird, or reptile (common hosts include mice, chipmunks, deer, birds, and lizards) the spirochetes come aboard and set up shop inside the tick; when the infected tick bites its next host, the spirochetes slip into the new victim through the tick’s saliva. The longer the tick feeds, the longer the spirochetes have to infect the tick’s newest host.
Not all ticks carry the spirochetes that cause disease in mammals. The rate of their infection varies by geographic location, species and life-stage of the tick, and species of spirochete. Most prevalent is the species that causes Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi. In southern New England – the epicenter of Lyme infection – about 20 to 30 percent of tick nymphs and 30 to 50 percent of adult ticks are infected with B. burgdorferi. In other parts of the country, B. burgdorferi may be found in fewer than five percent of ticks.
How to Protect Your Dog
To protect your family members from tick-borne disease, then, your job is two-fold: Do everything that you can to keep ticks off of your dog, and quickly find and remove any ticks that do manage to climb aboard.
We’ve discussed oral and topical pesticides that are fed to or applied to dogs to kill ticks in other articles (see Prescription Flea and Tick Medication, WDJ September 2017). But it’s clear to anyone who uses prescription or over-the-counter medications or spot-on products, tick collars, essential oils, or anything else, that no matter what you use, some ticks will manage to climb aboard and bite your dog. So let’s talk about the second tactic for protecting your dog from tick-borne disease: Getting the ticks off your dog ASAP.
How to Remove Ticks
I have heard countless methods for tick removal: Paint a tick with nail polish and it will detach from the dog to avoid being suffocated. Touch a just-extinguished match to the tick’s body so it pulls itself out. Pull while turning the tick clockwise. No – pull while turning counter-clockwise! All of these tactics are ineffective; don’t do any of them!
It’s actually quite simple: Just try to get a good grip on the tick, as close to the dog’s skin as possible, and pull it straight out.
Note that I said simple, not easy. Ticks are tiny. Your dog may be squirming. If his coat is thick, it might be hard to isolate the tick in your grip. You may end up pulling, or being impeded by, his hair, too. And if your fingers are thick, you run the risk of squishing the tick between them as you pull, which can result in squeezing the contents of the tick’s mouth and guts into your dog! Ack! That actually increases the chance of infecting your dog with any disease-carrying spirochetes that the tick might be hosting!
Tweezers can be used more effectively than your fingers, but they, too, pose the risk of squeezing the tick and squirting that potentially pathogenic-filled tick spit into your dog’s body.
Instead, use a tick pulling tool with a V-shaped slot. Slide the tool between your dog’s skin and the tick’s body, wedging the tick’s body into the tightest part of the tool’s crevice. When you feel that the tick is securely lodged in the slot, pull upward on the tool and – pop! The tick comes right out.
Tick Tool Time
There are any number of tick-pulling tools on the market. Many of them are basically tweezers. They may have longer stems or sharper points than tweezers meant for other purposes, but they all pose the risk of squeezing the tick as you grasp it hard enough to pull it out.
The superior tools for this purpose all have the V-shaped slot that you wedge the tick’s body into, effectively using its … shoulders? … as leverage for when you pull.
The best tick-pulling tools have a few specific attributes that increase their effectiveness:
- They are made of a strong yet thin material. The tool has to be thin enough to slide between the tick’s body and the dog’s skin, along both sides of the tick’s … neck?
- They are possessed of a V-shaped slot that is narrow enough at the bottom of the V to trap and leverage against the narrowest of tick … shoulders? (The tick’s body, basically.) If the V is not vanishingly narrow at the bottom, the tool won’t capture the tiniest ticks.
- They are of a size and shape that is easy for even thick-fingered people to grasp securely and that can be slid under the tick’s body easily.
We tested several tick-removal tools with V-shaped slots, and our favorites are described below. We purchased all of these products on Amazon.com. We like to support local pet supply stores, but these products are rarely found in stores.