A veterinarian offers tips on how to keep you and your pets safe from ticks

A woman walks three dogs down a thin path behind snow banks along Dorchester Street in Andrew Square, Feb. 17, 2015. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A woman walks three dogs down a thin path behind snow banks along Dorchester Street in Andrew Square, Feb. 17, 2015. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Warming weather carries a threat to pets and pet-owners alike: ticks.

Veterinarians are reporting more cases of tick-borne illnesses in Massachusetts, and the usual diseases aren't the only ones to blame.

Ticks carrying Lyme disease used to be the primary concern for vets. But now other illnesses, like anaplasmosis and babesiosis, have been showing up in higher numbers than is typical in the state, said Monica Mansfield, president-elect of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association .

Mansfield, who also works as a veterinarian at the Medway Animal Clinic, said her office has seen cases of both anaplasmosis and babesiosis, the latter of which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared endemic in Massachusetts .

Photo provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a blacklegged tick, also known as a deer tick, a carrier of Lyme disease. (CDC via AP)
Photo provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a blacklegged tick, also known as a deer tick, a carrier of Lyme disease. (CDC via AP)

Ticks used to go dormant in winter, but experts warn that unseasonably high temperatures are creating a hospitable environment for the parasites to remain active throughout the year. That reality has some veterinarians like Mansfield calling for age-old best practices, as well as new protocols, to handle them.

Here's what you need to know about to keep you and your pet safe from ticks:

The risk to dogs vs. cats vs. humans

Dogs face a bigger risk than cats of getting sick from ticks, even though they might carry the same types of ticks, Mansfield said.

That said, humans should also take precaution against ticks, which includes protecting all pets from exposure to ticks that could then move about their homes.

In extreme cases, humans can get Lyme disease from tick bites, which can lead to weakness in the joints and heart if left untreated, according to the CDC . There isn't yet a vaccine available to treat Lyme, but one has advanced to the final stage of a clinical trial .

Also babesiosis, while rare, can threaten people's lives, especially among the elderly and immunocompromised population, according to Edouard Vannier, who researches the disease at Tufts School of Medicine . And there isn't a human vaccine for that either.

There is a vaccine for Lyme disease in dogs, but not for anaplasmosis or babesiosis.

Take care within 24 hours

Experts generally say that a tick needs to be on a dog for about 24 hours for it to transmit an illness, Mansfield said

She added it can take even longer — between 12-48 hours — for a tick to embed itself on a person's skin and transmit disease.

That leaves ample time after heading outdoors to search your and your pet's bodies for ticks to remove and dispose of them.

Mansfield recommends owners conduct a tick-check 20 minutes after a walk.

A nose-to-back inspection protocol

Ticks can be hard to spot with your eyesight alone; after all, they're often as big as the tip of a pen. That's why, Mansfield explained, owners are better off relying on their sense of touch to catch them.

A soft massage, beginning from the dog's nose and working all the way to the tail, can take as little as three minutes, Mansfield said.

Ticks will likely latch on at the ears, chest, feet and, especially, the nose.

Why the nose? According to Mansfield, a tick could lie dormant on a blade of grass for a year, but all it takes is carbon dioxide (like, a dog's heavy breathing and panting) to activate it.

"What do dogs do when they're walking? They have their nose down on the ground, and they're puffing and letting their carbon dioxide go on the grass. And so the ticks can shimmy up in a second like, 'Oh, carbon dioxide activated, ' " she said.

Pull gently and skip the tweezers

Tweezers may seem like a good idea because it means owners don't have to touch the tick. The problem, however, is that a tweezer's sharp tip could end up severing the tick's body in such a way that its head is left inside the dog's skin — and the problem of potential infection doesn't go away, but rather becomes harder to deal with.

Instead, it's better to use your fingers to gently pull the tick off your pet's fur in a direction parallel to their skin.

There are also other tools, like a tick lasso, available at pet stores.

Rubbing alcohol: A tick's worst enemy

If an owner does successfully pry a tick off their dog, the next step is key: killing the tick and disposing of it.

For this, there are two routes: dropping the tick in a container of rubbing alcohol, or coating the tick in petroleum jelly to suffocate it.

From there, Mansfield said owners should check that the tick is properly sealed in a bag or container so there's no possibility of it escaping somewhere in, or near, their home.

Pick your (preventative) poison: collar, neck drops or chewable pills

Owners that treat their dogs with an anti-tick medication can relax a bit, but Mansfield says post-walk inspections are still a good idea.

A high-quality tick treatment will do its job of killing a tick within an hour or two. It is important that pets stay up-to-date on these sometimes monthly treatment regimens.

For help picking the best form and brand of treatment, Mansfield recommends owners talk to their veterinarians.

She added that owners might also want to weigh the risks of taking dogs on walks in highly wooded areas where foxes may roam. That's because ticks carrying another disease, called sarcoptic mange, often live on wild foxes. And only a few treatments are effective against this.

On the upside, tick treatments also prevent fleas.

A shift to year-round treatment

Veterinarians used to recommend that owners administer some sort of tick treatment from April through November (and, in some cases, even through December). But with a warming climate and the rise of tick-borne illnesses not typically seen, Mansfield feels strongly that year-round treatments are now necessary in Massachusetts.

'Ain't doing right,' and other signs of possible disease

OK, so what if you are worried you may have missed a tick after a walk outside or forgot to inspect your pet? There's a commonly used acronym in the veterinary world: ADR, or "ain't doing right." This phrase could refer to what Mansfield described as "using one's 'Spidey senses' at home that, like, something is just off" about your pet.

The tell-tale symptoms of a tick-borne illness include a drop in blood platelets, fever and joint tenderness.

Since these diagnostics are hard to test for at home, Mansfield recommends owners pay attention to their dog's energy, and particularly to any changes around how they stand or walk. Leg lameness that migrates from one limb to another is a classic sign of possible tick-borne illness.

In all these cases, it's always good to get a dog looked at by a professional.


Amy Sokolow Twitter Associate Producer, All Things Considered & Weekend Edition
Amy Sokolow is an associate producer for All Things Considered and Weekend Edition.


Vanessa Ochavillo Twitter Associate Producer
Vanessa Ochavillo is an associate producer for WBUR focused on digital news.



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