Eight Tips for Keeping Your Dog Free of Tick-Borne Diseases

Ticks are such annoying little creatures, but far more significant than the nuisance factor is their ability to spread disease. Ticks that embed in a dog’s skin can transmit a variety of serious and even life threatening infectious diseases including:

  • Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
  • Ehrlichia
  • Anaplasma
  • Babesia
  • Lyme disease (Borrelia)

Another problem ticks can cause is a rare neurological condition called “tick paralysis.” Lastly, ticks can produce inflammation and bacterial infection right at the site of the bite.

Prevention strategies

Prevention is the golden rule when it comes to keeping your dog free from tick-borne diseases. Here are eight tried and true tips to accomplish this:

  1. Learn which season is “tick season.”

While ticks are prevalent throughout North America, the time of year they are problematic varies from region to region. Ask your veterinarian when tick season occurs in your neck of the woods. This will be the time of year to be most vigilant with tick control measures.

  1. Know the lay of the land.

Ticks prefer areas with dense vegetation. Much of their time is spent on the ground, but they are adept at crawling up to the top tips of shrubs and grasses. This vantage point enhances their ability to successfully leap onto an animal passing by. Best to avoid exposing your dog to such shrubby and grassy areas, particularly during tick season.

  1. Use tick prevention products.

There are a variety of products on the market that prevent and/or kill ticks. Some tick collars work well, but are not a good choice for dogs who do a lot of swimming or those who have “mouthy play” with other dogs (chemicals within the collar might be ingested by your dog’s playmate).

Other tick-prevention options include medication administered orally or applied topically (to the skin). There are a variety of products to choose from and most are combined with flea prevention medication. Talk with your veterinarian about which tick prevention products make the most sense for your dog.

  1. Frisk your dog daily.

Perform a daily “tick check” on your dog daily, particularly following outdoor excursions. Getting rid of the little buggers before they’ve had a chance to embed eliminates the possibility of disease transmission. The ticks’ favorite places to attach are your dog’s neck, head, and ears, so pay particularly close attention to these areas.

  1. Save the ticks you remove.

Sounds gross, I know, but saving the ticks you remove just might prove to be useful. Different species of ticks transmit different diseases. Given that symptoms of the various tick-borne diseases overlap, having knowledge of the type of tick your dog was exposed to may help your veterinarian hone in on a diagnosis more expediently. I recommend dunking and storing the ticks in a disposable container filled with isopropyl alcohol. Show them to your veterinarian should your dog become sick.

  1. Remove embedded ticks promptly and properly.

Do your best to remove any embedded ticks as soon as possible. Less time spent attached to your dog lessens the odds of disease transmission.

You’ll find dozens of recommendations on line describing how to remove an embedded tick. Be wary of what you read. Burning a tick with a hot match is not effective, and you risk singeing your dog’s haircoat. Coating the tick with Vaseline or some other type of lubricant does nothing but render the tick slippery and more difficult to remove. And acetone, such as the chemical found in nail polish removers, causes the tick to become brittle and more likely to shatter during the removal process.

A preferred method involves using tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Gentle, steady pulling should extract the parasite in its entirety. Even with this method, sometimes the head of the tick is left behind. Not to worry. The dog’s immune system will take care of the tick part that remains.

Talk with your veterinarian about his or her preferred method for removing embedded ticks. Whichever method you choose, be sure to wear gloves so as to eliminate any risk of disease transmission for yourself.

  1. Consider the Lyme disease vaccine.

The Lyme disease vaccine has been available now for several years. Most veterinarians who specialize in infectious diseases continue to recommend against vaccinating dogs who do not live in areas where there is a high incidence of Lyme disease. Additionally, there is lack of agreement about exactly how much protection the vaccine provides. Discussion with your veterinarian on this topic is certainly warranted.

  1. Know the symptoms.

Rest assured that the majority of dogs exposed to ticks never develop a tick-borne disease. But for those who do, early recognition of symptoms and prompt veterinary attention enhance the likelihood of a positive outcome. If your dog has tick exposure, talk with your veterinarian about what symptoms you should be on the look out for.

Questions for your veterinarian

– When does tick season occur here?

– Which tick prevention products do you recommend for my dog?

– What method of tick removal do you recommend?

– Does the Lyme disease vaccination make sense for my dog?

– What are the symptoms of tick-borne disease that I should be watching for?

Have you had any experience with tick-borne disease in your dogs?  What is your prevention strategy?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.


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10 Comments on “Eight Tips for Keeping Your Dog Free of Tick-Borne Diseases

  1. Ticks always gave me the willies until about 25 years ago when I got a phone call from a gentleman who asked if I could groom and remove some ticks from his Mom’s 2 senior Shelties. He had gone to Missouri to bring his Mom and her dogs to his home as she could no longer take care of herself or live alone. I have never seen anything like it again, there were ticks everywhere, layered like shingles on the rumps of these two, old, sweet girls to the point the hair was gone. The water coming off them in the tub was red with dried blood and both dogs were anemic. I lost count after removing a couple of hundred. They looked and felt a lot better when we were done and the next stop was the vets office. Now, before you condemn their owner, when the gentleman picked them up, he said his Mom had also been covered in ticks.
    We only have an occasional tick show up here, next time I’m going to try the cotton swab technique. I had heard somewhere that grasping the tick and “unscrewing” them works well, this sounds sort of like that. Sure glad ticks don’t bother me or else I would be twitchy for the rest of the day! I always love reading your blogs.

  2. OK that photo is giving me the creeps!

    We spend lots of time in tick country because we love the outdoors. So, protection and prevention is key to avoid these critters. However, I just will not put flea/tick toxins on our Wyatt, so I religiously spray him with natural flea/tick prevention products, he wears an EasyDefense Flea & Tick Tag from OnlyNaturalPet and we check him after walks.

    In his six years, he’s only had about 3 ticks cling to him, and thankfully he’s never had a reaction. I realize the chances we take by not using Frontline etc., but to me, not having my dog filled with excessive chemicals is worth it. As an aside, he does take a heartworm preventive, which I’m not opposed to.

  3. Since I live on the banks of the Colorado River, fighting ticks is a constant battle for me. I have one sheltie and one labrador retriever. My lab stays in a kennel with a pea gravel floor and does not have much of a problem with ticks getting on her. My poor sheltie, on the other hand, spends his time in our fenced back yard and the ticks love him. I have used just about every tick specialized topical product on him (and the lab) and cannot get 100% control on the ticks. I have treated my yard and kennels with chemicals to try to eradicate the little beasties. I bet my yard glows in the dark with all the chemicals I have used to try to kill them out!
    I have worked with a group of professionals that I met at a Diseases in Nature Conference and sent them numerous samples of the ticks that I have found on my dogs. Fortunately, none of the ticks came back with any diseases. I have learned more about ticks than I ever wanted to know.
    Any ticks found attached to any of my staff or volunteers here at the animal control facility are sent in for testing. I believe Lyme disease is here in southwest Texas and early detection is key in treating this terrible disease.
    I did find and interesting tick removal method. Take a cotton swab and circle it around where the tick is attached. It is like “stirring” the tick. After 5 or 6 revolutions, the tick releases from the host. We have used this technique several times and it has worked every time. It is not an a time effective way to remove a lot of ticks from a dog.
    Ticks have a life cycle that makes them very hard to eradicate. Very frustrating.

  4. Hi Nancy,

    Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences in response to my blog post. Your dog is following the pattern I mentioned in my article- most dogs with exposure to the tick-borne disease never develop any symptoms. In all likelihood their immune system simply gets rid of the organism, but the test your vet performed can remain positive for a very long time. Certainly, be vigilant for any symptoms, just as you normally would be, but there is no strong reason to believe that your dog is more likely than any other dog to become sick from a tick-borne disease, particularly if you are using good preventive measures.

    Best wishes,

    Dr. Nancy

  5. My ten year old Weim/Dobe came up a 4 out of 5 on a 4dx snap test for Ehrlichia and my vet chose not to treat him. He does not have symptoms at this point. Should I worry that as time goes by, he will show signs? Thanks in advance for your reply. I do use Frontine EVERY month without fail. Is there something better I should be using? He does have a past history of seizures so I know one of the new flea/tick treatment is out of the question for him. I forget the name of it but it starts with the letter “N”.

  6. I found a tick on my dog’s head a while ago and got worried about transmittable diseases so I went to my vet who decided to put him on antibiotics for 30 days even though he did not show any symptoms such as lethargy, lack of appetite or nervous system problems. He actually is a wonderful lure courser and runs very well. I wonder if you could talk a bit more about treating a dog after having had bitten by a tick. My dog by the way was vaccinated for Lyme disease but got antibiotics anyway.

  7. Hi there,

    Thanks for posting your comments in response to my blog. I agree with much of what you have said, but I am wondering if you are confusing some of the information you posted with the Leptospirosis vaccine that includes only four of the several servers.

    Dr. Nancy

  8. IMO, the Lyme vaccine does more harm than good. The vaccine can cause severe adverse effects; the vaccine is not always effective; and the vaccine only purports to address 4 types (serovars) out of the 10 most likely to be transmitted (even though there are around 200). So, the vaccine is dangerous, ineffective, and the underlying disease it purports to prevent is treatable (and preventable by checking for, and removing, ticks).

  9. Saving the tick removed from dogs to show vet. A few years ago when managing houses, I told the tenant to tape the roach…..I meant kill it but save it with tape for exterminator to identify. Tenant said ‘with my phone or should I use a camera’? I was stunned till I realized what he meant

  10. We keep a “tick jar” all year long. I do wish there was something for people. The dogs do well with their topical, but I am such a tick magnet. Daily checking does help, especially for the thick furred canines.