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How to find, remove and prevent ticks on your dog or cat

Picture this: You’re lacing up your hiking boots, stuffing your pack with trail mix and ensuring you bring a can of bug spray to keep the dangerous bugs, like ticks, away.

But it’s important to remember that pets are also at risk of Lyme disease — and other tick-borne illnesses — whether they’re joining you on your outdoor adventures or just hanging out in the backyard.

To learn more about how to prevent our pets — both dogs and cats — from getting sick from ticks, we talked to Dr. Tyler Spriggs (a dermatology resident at NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine) and Dr. Patrick Moyle (a BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital veterinarian who works in Raleigh, Durham and Cary offices).

Can ticks transmit disease in dogs?

Ticks are typically most active in late spring and summer, and can be found in tall grass or brush. They can attach themselves to dogs or outdoor cats, according to ASPCA.

“The most common ticks are American Dog Tick, Brown Dog Tick, Lone Star Tick, Black-Legged Tick (aka, the deer tick),” Spriggs said.

Dogs can get a few different infections transmitted by ticks, including Lyme disease, according to BluePearl.

For both pets and humans, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is the most common disease spread via an infected tick in NC, but ticks can also cause Lyme disease, Ehrlichia and Anaplasma, Spriggs said.

“Take precautions against all ticks by keeping dogs on leash and out of grassy and wooded areas, using prescription preventatives and searching dogs for ticks after hikes are good practice,” Moyle said. “Many of the diseases that can be transmitted to dogs can also be transmitted to people, and dog owners should also take precautions to avoid ticks.”

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection. The bacterium (borrelia burgdorferi) is transmitted by ticks after they’ve been attached to the animal for a minimum of 24 to 48 hours, per BluePearl.

If your dog has Lyme disease, it can take between two to six months between the time of the bite and the time symptoms develop, Moyle said. Only about 10% of the dogs that are bitten by an infected tick ultimately develop outward symptoms, which can include fever, loss of appetite and changes in movement.

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Banjo sniffs about in the grass at the Millbrook Exchange Dog Park in Raleigh on Friday, March 18, 2022. Dogs are at risk of Lyme disease the same as people, so it’s important to learn the best ways to prevent them from getting ticks when they play outside. Julia Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

How to prevent Lyme disease in dogs

Here are some tips for preventing Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses in your dog:

Use a preventative: This can prevent ticks from latching onto your dog in the first place. Use a veterinarian-approved tick and flea preventative, which your individual veterinarian can recommend, BluePearl said.

Dogs develop Lyme disease more commonly, but cats that like to roam around outside and are not on a preventative are at higher risk of developing it, Spriggs said. Still, it’s quite rare for cats to develop Lyme disease.

“Making sure your pet is on year-round flea/tick prevention is the biggest preventive measure,” Spriggs said.

Spriggs told The N&O about common preventatives for dogs. Be sure to check with your veterinarian before giving any medicine to your pet.

Oral options:

Topical options:

Many products that treat fleas also kill ticks and prevent future infestation, ASPCA said. For example, Simparica Trio is a flea, tick and heartworm preventative, Spriggs said.

“We recommend that pet owners discuss with their primary care veterinarian about the pros and cons of these medications to help determine what is best for the owner and the pet,” Moyle said. “We do not generally recommend over-the-counter products as they are generally less effective than prescription products.”

Inspect your pet: Make sure you thoroughly check your dog after walks through grassy or woody settings.

Check between toes, under tails and around mouths, eyes and ears. Remember the inside of their ears, Blue Pearl said. Under the front legs, between the back legs and under the collar are important spots to check too, the CDC said.

Most ticks can be seen with the naked eye. When they bite, they’re about the size of a pinhead, but they become more noticeable as they swell with blood, ASPCA said.

Remove ticks immediately: The quicker you remove ticks, the less likely your dog will develop a secondary disease related to their bites. If you’re having trouble removing the tick on your own, consult your veterinarian, BluePearl said.

Watch your step: Keep walks in short grasses, and stay on paths when hiking in woods. Avoid tall grassy patches as much as you can, BluePearl said.

Tend to your lawn: Mow it regularly and remove tall weeds. Keep garbage covered and inaccessible to rodents, ASPCA said.

Here are some landscaping techniques from the CDC:

  • Remove leaf litter.

  • Put wood chips or gravel between lawns and wooded areas (preferably a three-foot barrier) to limit tick migration to recreational areas.

  • Neatly stack wood in a dry area, which will discourage rodents.

  • Keep patios, decks and playground equipment away from trees and yard edges.

  • Construct fences to keep deer, raccoons and other unwelcome animals away, as they may be carrying ticks.

  • Remove trash from the yard, as ticks may hide in there.

  • Apply pesticide, which you should do after checking with local health or agricultural officials. Learn the best kind of pesticide to use, the best time to apply it and regulations that may be in place.

Note: Cats have an extreme sensitivity to many chemicals. Before using, ask your veterinarian first if a chemical you would like to use in your yard will be harmful for your cat.

Get your dog a shot (if possible): Lyme disease vaccination can prevent your dog from getting the disease. But the vaccine isn’t appropriate for all dogs, so consult your veterinarian to see what’s best for your circumstance, BluePearl said.

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In this undated photo provided by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a blacklegged tick – also known as a deer tick. james gathany AP

How to remove a tick from your pet

Here’s what the ASPCA says to do when removing a tick from your dog, cat or other pet:

Step 1: Preparation

  • Avoid ever having contact with the tick or your pet’s infected area. Wear rubber or latex gloves.

  • Put rubbing alcohol in a screw-top jar. After removing the tick, you will put it in here, since throwing a tick in the trash or flushing it down the toilet won’t kill it. Plus, you’ll want the tick to get it tested after removal to see if it’s carrying Lyme disease or any other illnesses.

  • Have a partner around to distract your pet and hold them still during the removal.

Step 2: Removal

  • Use tweezers to grab the tick as close to your pet’s skin as you can.

  • Pull straight upwards. Use steady, constant pressure. Don’t twist or jerk, as that can cause parts of the tick to remain embedded in the skin. Don’t squeeze or crush the tick’s body, which can release infectious matter.

  • Place the tick in the jar.

Step 3: Disinfection

  • Disinfect your pet’s bite area.

  • Remove your gloves, and wash your hands with soap and water.

  • Sterilize your tweezers, which you can do with rubbing alcohol or fire.

Monitor the bite area over the course of the next few weeks. See if there is inflammation or redness. If so, bring your pet (and the jarred tick) to your vet.

(Source: ASPCA, aspca.org/pet-care/general-pet-care/fleas-and-ticks.)

How to treat Lyme disease in dogs

If your dog contracts Lyme disease from an infected tick, they will need to take an antibiotic for about a month. The antibiotic is usually doxycyclineBluePearl said.

For dogs with common symptoms, they will usually respond to the treatment within a few short days, then the antibiotic will continue for 28 days total.

Most dogs exposed to Lyme disease can fight off the infection on their own, BluePearl said. Clinical signs of Lyme disease are only found in 5% to 15% of infected dogs.

Here are common clinical signs, according to BluePearl:

  • mild fever

  • Lethargy

  • Mild lymph node enlargement

  • Joint swelling (arthritis in one or more joints)

  • Limping (or abnormal walking or running behavior)

  • discomfort

If your dog develops a rare form of kidney disease from the infected tick, a more aggressive treatment is required, BluePearl said. This disease, which is more serious, can be spotted by increased drinking and urinating and a decreased appetite.

Can cats get tick-borne diseases?

Cats can develop Cytauxzoon from infected ticks, Moyle said.

Also known as “Bobcat Fever,” this disease is caused by a blood parasite that impacts cats, according to the Cornell Wildlife Health Center. It can be life threatening.

Cytauxzoon is most commonly carried by the Lone Star tick. It’s sometimes carried by the American Dog tick, Cornell said. Both of these ticks are prevalent in central NC.

For more information, visit cwhl.vet.cornell.edu.

Cats can develop Lyme disease, but it’s rare, Spriggs said. Dogs develop this disease more commonly. Outdoor cats that roam around outside and are not taking preventatives are at higher risk of developing Lyme disease. Making sure your pet takes flea/tick preventative medications are the biggest protective measure you can take.

Here are preventative options for your cat, Spriggs said:

  • RevolutionPlus (monthly topical preventative)

  • Advantage multi (monthly topical preventative)

  • Credilio (monthly oral preventative)

More information on ticks

Get more information on ticks on pets and preventing and treating Lyme disease in dogs at:

  • American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA): aspca.org/pet-care
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov/ticks) have information for pet owners about

Also check out The News & Observer’s report on ticks dangerous to humans (and the diseases they can spread) in North Carolina at newsobserver.com/news.

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Kimberly Cataudella (she/her) is a service journalism reporter for The News & Observer.

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