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Ticks on Dogs: Everything You Need to Know [2023]

ticks on dogs

Ticks on dogs are small, spider-like creatures which feed on the blood of animals including dogs and humans. They vary in size, usually between 1mm to 1cm long. They have either 6 or 8 legs.

The main concern of ticks is their role as vectors of pathogenic agents which can cause a range of tick-borne diseases, including Lyme Disease. 

Sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? Well, ticks aren’t anyone’s friend, but how common are ticks on dogs?

Prevalence of Ticks

The Big Tick Project launched in 2015, concluded that 31% of the 15,000 UK dogs tested had ticks. This means that 69% of these dogs did not. You can learn more by visiting Merck or MSD (for those outside of the US) because they spearheaded this project with Bristol University. You’ll recognise Merck or MSD as the manufacturer of Bravecto, a chemical product used for tick control. How ironic. 

Before we take this data at face value, we must note the limitations highlighted by the Bristol University researchers.

“In the present study, it is likely that the veterinarians who enrolled were those with the greatest interest in ticks and tick-borne disease or were in practices with a known history of tick problems amongst their clients resulting in over-reporting.”

So, we have a suggestion that this number could have been a little over-zealous. 

To further explore tick prevalence, it’s worth exploring data that isn’t reported by the manufacturers of a product (Bravecto) that would benefit from relatively high reports of ticks. 

Most available data sets are more concerned with the risk of disease transmitted from ticks and European studies estimate that 1-5% of tick bites can lead to Lyme disease. Alternatively, 95-99% of tick bites do not.

Suppose the 5% end of the statistic is a little more worrying. In that case, statisticians have put over 3000 human tick bites through a fancy equation, and with 95% confidence, they have concluded that the overall risk of developing Lyme disease from a tick bite is 2.6%.

Having said that, other researchers decided to look into the diagnosis of Lyme disease in humans and they queried whether all diagnoses were accurate. They found that some diagnoses occurred at the time of tick removal; this is problematic as the ticks hadn’t yet been tested for the disease. These researchers concluded that there might be a possibility that Lyme disease could be over-diagnosed. 

“The over-diagnosis evident in this study is probably due to the combination of lack of knowledge and high-risk perception among these GPs.” 

These researchers approached it from a “is this an appropriate use of our funding?” perspective, but it does provide food for thought when we are interpreting the data around the prevalence of tick-borne disease. 

Now we’re not saying ticks aren’t nasty little critters, and that we shouldn’t be careful, we’re just saying it pays to be critical of any data we read.

Equally, most data around Lyme disease is in humans – in the dog world, unbiased, quantifiable data around disease transmission is hard to come by. 

So, what’s the true risk when we’re talking ticks? Let’s take a look. 

Types of Ticks on Dogs

You will notice different types of ticks depending on where you live. 

1. US Ticks 

1.1: American Dog Tick

These pesky critters are found over most of North America. You will find them predominantly along forest edges and in areas with little or no tree cover. But you will also find them along walkways, sidewalks, and trails. 

One of the smarter ticks, these guys like different hosts depending on which life stage they are in and they will feed on both humans and animals. Adult ticks like medium-sized hosts like raccoons, skunks, cats, and dogs. Larvae and nymphs prefer small animals like mice and voles. These ticks can transmit Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever but they can also transmit Tularemia or rabbit fever. 

The American dog tick can survive for up to 2 years at any given life stage if no host is found. 

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1.2: Lone Star Tick

These little guys are more commonly known for the fact they can transmit a molecule which can kick-start an allergy to red meat (in humans. We don’t appear to have researched this in dogs yet).  

Tick bites can contribute to developing an immune response to the carbohydrate galactose-1,3-galactose, also known as alpha-gal which is found in tick salivary proteins. This immune response can then cross-react with alpha-gal found in red meats too. 

Lone star ticks are generally found in woodlands with dense undergrowth. These tend to be more aggressive towards humans. 

Larvae don’t tend to be disease carrying, but they will still cause a reaction when they bite. Nymphs and adults can transmit disease, the most common being Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and STARI borreliosis. 

Lone Star adults are active April-August and will happily feed on dogs, coyotes, deer, cattle, and humans.

Female lone stars require a week to 10 days or more to fully engorge but can lay a whopping 2500-3000 eggs!

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1.3: Black-legged Tick

The black-legged tick or deer tick, is the main vector of Lyme disease and this is the most common tick you will find in the US and the UK alike. You may hear it referenced as the sheep tick too. 

This pesky critter requires high humidity to prevent dehydration, so in the UK, you would find them in wetter areas, particularly the West, and Northern England, and Scotland. 

These guys activate in Spring/Early Summer but in hotter areas of the UK, tick activity can almost cease during the summer months. 

The black-legged tick takes 2 years to complete their life cycle from eggs to larvae. 

Black-legged ticks are generally found in woodland as well as tall grassland and shrubs bordering forests. 

Known as the deer tick, their population largely depends on the presence of deer. 

Both the nymph and the adult tick can transmit diseases like Lyme, babesiosis, and anaplasmosis. 

In addition, this tick has recently been found to also contribute to sensitisation to red meats. Cases of red meat allergy have been reported in humans in the rural pre-Alps area of Northern Italy, Spain, Sweden, France, and Denmark, where the black-legged tick has been identified as the probable sensitising species.

A recent 2021 case report discusses 3 cases of red meat allergy in the UK and the researchers concluded that delayed allergic reactivity to red meat following tick bites can occur in the UK. They also highlight that the allergy involves specific carbohydrate groups present in mammalian red meat but these groups are also found in certain protein-based drugs. For instance, magnesium stearate and gelatin are found in formulations of acetaminophen, naproxen, lisinopril, clonidine, and hydrocodone, and allergic reactions to these medications have been potentially linked to alpha-gal sensitivities too. Thyroid medications are also of concern if there is an alpha-gal sensitivity. 

Whilst this is largely related to humans, researchers in 2019 concluded it is possible that dogs could develop an allergy to mammalian meat after tick bites, similar to that in humans. So this is certainly something worth being mindful of. 

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2. Irish / UK Ticks

2.1: British dog or fox tick

These ticks are found throughout the UK and Ireland on mainly medium to larger mammals that have a burrow or lair, i.e. fox, mink, badgers. 

These pesky critters can cycle in kennels and so can be more common on sheepdogs and hunting dogs. 

The female British dog tick can survive a lower humidity and can climb to a considerable height to lay eggs in cracks and crevices of roughly constructed buildings.

2.2: Hedgehog tick

The is the second most common tick on dogs and often the most common on cats. The larvae are more or less exclusively found on hedgehogs and also other small mammals that have nests/dens may become infected (stoats, weasels, ferrets, polecats, foxes, badgers). Dogs are accidental hosts of mainly adults. 

The hedgehog tick is found in greatest numbers in SE England, but has been found at low frequency in Scotland. 

These guys are active in February and there may be a spring (April/May) peak. There is usually a decline in June/July and a second peak in August to October. In the nest, there may be some winter activity.

Life Cycle of Dog Ticks

The tick life cycle is made up of three active stages; larvae, nymphs, and adults. 

Each stage needs an animal host on which to feed before it can move onto the next stage. In the case of the female adult, this also includes being able to lay eggs. 

The life cycle takes on average three years to complete. 

Ticks will search for hosts based on carbon dioxide presence, changes in light, and body heat. Once a host is sensed, the tick will climb on. 

The tick will find a suitable feeding site and take one continuous blood meal. The tick then detaches and drops off. The meal is digested and they will move on to the next stage. 

For the adult female, after mating, they will lay several thousand eggs at ground level before dying.

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Habits and habitats of Ticks

Predominant habitats of ticks

Ticks can be found almost anywhere, but there are some habitats where they are able to thrive. 

Ticks are more commonly found in wooded and grassy areas, where there are plenty of animals they can feed on. This includes deer, rabbits, birds, lizards, squirrels, mice, and other rodents. But they can also be found in urban areas. 

Ticks like moist and humid environments, which tend to be closer to the ground like amongst logs, fallen branches, tall brush, and grassy areas. 

Ticks in the early lifecycle stages are often found in piles of fallen leaves under trees.

Common locations for ticks

Ticks are more commonly found in the following places:

  • Wood piles
  • Grassy areas (hanging from tops of grass blades)
  • Wooded areas
  • Leaf piles
  • Fallen branches
  • Overgrown shrubs
  • Bird feeders (because they can invite other tick-attracting wildlife)

Active periods of adult males and females (during day/seasonality?)

Ticks are most active between Spring and Autumn, but there can be winter activity too. Where some parasites are more active at certain times of the day, ticks may be active at any time of the day, if it’s warm enough. 

How do dogs get ticks?

You could describe ticks as being quite lazy. They wait and watch, also known as “questing.”

Ticks typically climb to the top of a grass blade or near the edges of a bush or branch and wait for a potential host to pass by. As the potential host passes, they extend their hooked front legs and latch onto fur, hair, or clothing, which pulls them off their perch and onto the host, where they can begin to feed.

But if you’re in the med, the Hyalomma tick is known to run towards their host These guys have been known to cover around 100m in 10 minutes. 

In addition, the lone star tick has been known to aggressively pursue potential hosts too. Gross.

Feeding behaviour

Males search for a host to find a mate, they only ingest a small amount of host blood. Females on the other hand carry out extended feeds in order to lay eggs. This is why only females transmit disease. 

During feeding, ticks can remain attached to the host for a few days or up to two weeks depending on the species and stage of development.

Some ticks cement their mouthparts into the skin early on during the attachment process and will only release them during the rapid feeding phase (the final 12–36 hours) when most of the meal has been taken up.

Problems Ticks Cause in Dogs

Ticks can transmit disease simply because they are blood-suckers. But only an infected tick can infect other animals. 

The length of attachment will also influence infectiousness. 

1. Virus Transmission

Data has demonstrated that only 15 min of tick attachment could transmit the Powassan virus, 1h of tick attachment for tick-borne encephalitis virus, 3–24h of tick attachment for Ehrlichia spp, and 24–48h of tick attachment for Babesia spp and Borrelia spp. Ticks generally must be attached for 36-48 hours for Lyme disease transmission. 

2. Tick fever

Also known as Canine Anaplasmosis, tick fever is transmitted from deer ticks. Symptoms include fever, loss of appetite, stiff joints and lethargy, but also can include vomiting, diarrhoea. In extreme cases, dogs may suffer seizures.

3. Tick paralysis in dogs

Tick paralysis is a rapidly progressive paralysis caused by a toxin in the female tick’s saliva that attacks the nervous system. Symptoms include lack of coordination in the hind legs, change in breathing, coughing, vomiting, and dilated pupils. Signs will usually appear 3-5 or 5-9 days after the tick attaches; depending on the infecting tick. 

Unlike tick-borne diseases involving transmission of pathogens, which can proliferate and continue to cause symptoms in the infected animal after the tick has been removed, tick paralysis occurs whilst the tick is attached and transmitting the neurotoxin into the animal’s bloodstream. Often symptoms improve within 24 hours of tick removal.

4. Lyme disease

The most common symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs are lameness, swollen lymph nodes, joint swelling, fatigue, and loss of appetite. In addition, kidney complications have been associated with Lyme disease in dogs.

Signs and symptoms may not appear for 2-5 months after infection. 

Symptoms of ticks on dogs

Like fleas, your dog may appear irritated by the attachment of a tick. You may also notice a bump or swollen area where your dog has been bitten. There may be a red circle encompassing the bite too. 

Engorged ticks are generally quite easy to see, they are like small grey beans. When they’re not engorged, ticks are about the size of a sesame seed and therefore a little harder to spot. 

If you notice any change to your dog’s behaviour or signs of vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, lethargy, lameness, or swelling, double-check your dog for any signs of ticks. 

Detecting and Removing Ticks on Dogs

Ticks aren’t really creatures we want to be sharing our lives with and the best way to detect them is to look for them! 

How to find ticks on dogs

If you’ve been out walking during tick season, or in an area that provides a perfect habitat for ticks (woodland, long grass, etc), check yourself and your dog as soon as you return home. 

Pay extra attention to the less-hairy areas like the groin or underbelly on your dog, also their armpits and ears. You can even brush your dog with a flea/tick comb.

They’re a little easier to spot on short-coated breeds, so just spend some extra time if you have a thick-coated breed. It’s worth it. Run your hands against the lie of your dog’s coat so you partition it for better visibility.  

Methods for removing ticks from dogs 

1. What not to do

Ignore all the advice you’ve heard about vaseline or paraffin. As much as we don’t really like ticks, we don’t want to torture them either. 

The single best way to remove a tick is to use a tick tool! Yes, they exist and they are brilliant little inventions. They’re like a fancy pair of tweezers but easier. 

2. How to pull a tick from a dog 

Using a tick remover tool, you slot the pincers around the tick and twist. This ensures you remove the whole tick and it doesn’t end up headless, legless, or toothless; depending on how you’re looking at the remains. We don’t want any part of the tick left in our dog. When you have removed the tick, you can do a recce on its body parts and check they’re all there. 

We are so impressed by the tick remover tools, we offer one free with each new order from our shop!

But we can also repel ticks, check out our ways to naturally repel ticks

Once the tick is removed, disinfect the area with a skin-safe disinfectant, e.g. 50/50 Apple Cider Vinegar and water (add salt for extra power), lemon juice, colloidal silver, iodine, or any suitable medical swab or antiseptic cream.

Ticks on Dogs FAQs

1. What should I do if my dog has ticks?

If you see a tick on your dog, you need to remove it with a tick remover tool. An important thing to remember is to keep the tick in a sealed jar, ideally with alcohol. If your dog subsequently develops worrying symptoms, you could have the tick examined for any disease.

Moving forwards it’s important to be wary and prevent naturally.  

2. Should I take my dog to the vet for a tick?

95-99% of tick bites aren’t cause for concern. However, if your dog develops new symptoms like fever, paralysis/weakness, lethargy, swelling, vomiting, or diarrhoea it would be wise to seek advice from your holistic vet. 

3. How big can ticks get on dogs?

Before a feed, ticks are around the size of a sesame seed. When fully engorged, female ticks can reach around 10-12mm. 

4. How do you find ticks on black dogs?

Looking for ticks on black dogs is the same as any colour dog. Check them after walks and partition their coat so you can see their skin. Ticks are shiny grey in colour so you can still spot them tucked into a black coat. You may just need to get in the sunlight, or turn your big light on. You can also use a flea/tick comb for those that aren’t yet engorged.   

5. How can you tell if a tick’s head is still in the dog?

If you have removed a tick, you want the legs to still wriggle and you should still see the head. Get to grips with photos of ticks from different angles so you know what you’re looking for. You should pop a tick in a jar anyway, so you can also use that to look at it closer. 

If you aren’t sure you’ve got the head, check the bite site. You may see or feel a slightly raised bump and you may see the mouthpart. You could attempt to get the head with some tweezers.

The risk with leaving the head in is increased risk of skin infection as opposed to disease transmission and so fishing around in the skin isn’t great if the head isn’t easily coming out. If you can’t easily grab the mouthpart, speak with your vet to advise on next steps.   

6. Can humans be harmed by ticks? 

Just like dogs, humans can become infected by ticks. So we are at just as much risk as our canine counterparts. We should cover up as much as possible when walking through wooded areas or long grass and we too can use repellents. 

7. Can humans catch ticks from dogs?

Ticks will also feed on humans so if a tick has been detached from a dog mid-meal, they may reattach to a human host. Humans are more likely to pick up a tick when walking through long grass themselves, however. 

Ticks aren’t anyone’s friends, so we do need to be mindful of the risks and in those warmer months, we really need to get into the habit of checking our limbs and our dog’s. 

We don’t advocate chemical tick treatments, frankly because the tick still has to attach to feed on the toxin that will ultimately kill them. In that period of time, there is still a risk of disease transmission. In this instance, we’re not really that much better off, and as we know, these chemical products come with a shopping list of side effects.

So, be wary, but prevent them naturally.

Ticks will also feed on humans so if a tick has been detached from a dog mid-meal, they may reattach to a human host. Humans are more likely to pick up a tick when walking through long grass themselves, however. 

Ticks aren’t anyone’s friends, so we do need to be mindful of the risks and in those warmer months, we really need to get into the habit of checking our limbs and our dog’s. 

We don’t advocate chemical tick treatments, frankly because the tick still has to attach to feed on the toxin that will ultimately kill them. In that period of time, there is still a risk of disease transmission. In this instance, we’re not really that much better off, and as we know, these chemical products come with a shopping list of side effects.So, be wary, but prevent them naturally.

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